Another school shooting, this time in Nashville. Seven people dead (including the shooter) and many more traumatized survivors. Lives changed forever by gun violence.
This particular event happened Monday morning, March 27. A former student of The Covenant School shot through a door to gain entrance and began randomly firing. Approximately 15 minutes later, police arrived and ended the siege, but not before three 9-year-olds and three adults who worked at the school had died.
Talking about a school shooting is hard. We want our children to feel safe when they go to school. We want their school to build confidence in their abilities and encourage them to take risks. When something scary and tragic happens at school, children can begin to fear school. And we can struggle to explain why school is still a good place for them to be.
Figuring out what details to share is challenging. Do we mention that the shooter was a former student? Do we acknowledge that the door locks weren’t able to keep danger out? Experts agree that it is best to follow our children’s lead when it comes to facts and explanations. If they ask who the person with the gun was, say “It was a person who was upset” or “A person who went to Covenant School many years ago.” If they wonder how the shooter got in, say “They broke in through a door” or “They shot at the lock to make it break.”
Using a matter-of-fact tone to convey information, as well as naming your feelings, reduces anxiety. Children are alert to how adults handle emotions and take cues from the behavior of those around them. Try to separate basic facts from emotional responses and then model managing your big emotions. After sharing information, say “I feel upset and scared when I think about someone with a gun breaking into a school” or “I feel so sad about those children dying that I want to cry.”
Affirming children’s feelings encourages them to share and ask questions. Avoid saying things like “Don’t worry, this can’t happen at your school” or “You don’t need to be afraid because I’ll take care of you.” While these statements might seem reassuring to us, children will wonder why the adults at The Covenant School couldn’t protect their children. Instead, say, “I hear that you are worried and I want to protect you. Let’s think of some ways to keep you safe.” Or say, “I hear that you are scared. What can we do to help you feel safe again?”
Finding ways to respond together can help restore children’s sense of control. If they are feeling sad about the deaths, create or buy a sympathy card and send it to the school. If they are anxious about going to school, review their school’s active shooter safety plan and encourage them to draw pictures of what they will do. If they are mad about unsafe people being able to buy guns and hurt others, suggest they make a protest poster or work together on a letter-writing campaign. Offer ways to make a difference and affirm their ability to do so.