How to Talk to Your Children About School Shootings

9388412353_fdb705e3f0_k.jpgWednesday’s horrific school shooting in Florida, which took the lives of 17 students and adults, has once again thrown the nation into mourning for families who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence.

Barely two months into 2018, there have already been 18 instances of gun violence in U.S. schools. That grim fact — and the alarming regularity of school shootings since 20 first graders and six staffers were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 — pose a heartbreaking challenge for parents of school age children. How can you help children feel safe when such terrible violence can occur at a place where they spend so much of their time?

Over the last couple of days, mental health professionals, teachers, administrators and parents have been offering strategies for taking kids' tough questions while calming their fears. Here are a few:

Take care of you: In her survey of mental health experts published today on NBC News Nicole Spector says parents should begin by taking time to process their own feelings with a loved one or friend so they can come to their children calm and ready to listen:

According to one counselor Spector interviewed having a support group is important for parents raising kids in troubling times. “I was on the phone with my partner and my friends trying to process everything,” says Kristin Wilson, who experienced her own scare when her daughter’s school was on lock-down due to the possibility of a shooter. “Having your own support group is important — really anything you can do to better your mental health is essential, because sadly, this is a reality now.”

Tell your kids you’re on it: Let your kids know that you’re doing everything you can to keep them safe: "Reassuring our children in these turbulent and violent times is a paramount question for parenting," Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand, recently told Parents "Say to your children: 'We will never take you anywhere or put you in any place where there is danger. That is our primary job as parents, to protect you. We will always keep you safe.' That fundamental message of safety is critical to make sure your children hear."

Protect kids from TMI: Children are easily overwhelmed by information, so do your best to reduce their exposure to 24-hour news and social media coverage. Also, be mindful that kids can be hypervigilant when it comes to following troubling events — especially those that are disturbing to grownups.

Take aim at the root of the problem: While sensible gun control legislation will make our towns and schools safer, we must take aim at the hate fueling so many attacks. News just released that the accused shooter Nikolas Cruz was a member of a white supremacist group seeking to turn Florida into a white ethno-state is a reminder to all of us that we need to do a better job of promoting, even demanding, tolerance.  

Children as young as 8 months recognize differences in people. But they don't attach a value to those differences until later. As adults we need to make sure we aren’t signaling bias, by say holding our child’s hand more tightly as we pass someone of another race on the street. Even dinner conversations can offer teachable moments. Expressing curiosity about the background of our neighbors and work colleagues reminds us all that our local communities are increasingly global and made all the richer for it. Questioning practices in our communities and businesses that promote some people and inhibit others will support children’s innate sense of fairness and put that into action in their daily lives by being good friends and allies.

Be real: Echoing the grim reality facing all parents of school age children, Live with Kelly and Ryan host Kelly Ripa shared her distress at being the mom of three kids who woke up today afraid what happened in Florida yesterday could happen to them. "You don't want to mislead your kids and say this is never going to happen, you hope and pray it doesn't happen,” Ripa told her audience yesterday. “But when they are inundated with these images every day, day after day, all the time, you start to feel like a liar, and I don't like feeling that way."

That’s why it’s important to respect their fears and talk about what you can control. Reassure them that you won’t ever take them to a place that isn’t safe and talk about all the things you do as a family to take care of one another. What goes on that list? Eating well, exercising, going for regular check-ups, looking both ways before you cross the street, wearing a seatbelt…

Talk about gun safety: According to a CNN report from last summer, Nearly 1,300 children in the U.S. die each year due to guns, Though you may not have guns in your own home, it’s important to warn children that if they should happen upon an unattended gun they should leave it where it is and immediately tell an adult. Similarly, if they hear a classmate talk about hurting others or bringing a gun to school, they should let a teacher know.

Let your child do the talking: The key to keeping your message age appropriate is understanding what your child is most afraid of. Once you know that you can address their biggest concerns —and won’t unintentionally introduce another one! Less is often more when it comes to easing kids fears.

Photo by Glenn Beltz, from Flickr