Talking with Kids about the Uvalde School Shooting

A school terrorized by an active shooter. A classroom of children injured and dead. Teachers killed trying to protect their students. This news out of Uvalde, Texas tears at the hearts of parents and caregivers everywhere. What if it had been our children’s school? We can hardly bear to think about it.

We also wonder what to tell our children. School is supposed to be a safe place. We don’t want kids to be afraid to go to class. So we might be tempted to say nothing and hope they won’t hear about what happened. However, child psychologists say that shielding children from such news is rarely the best option. While you might successfully prevent them from seeing the news at home, they are likely to hear about it from peers. And they also sense when adults are upset, even if they don’t know the reason, which causes insecurity and distress.

Know that talking about difficult events can actually create a bond with your child. When you share bad news and offer to talk about it, children get the message that you are willing to be their partner in addressing tough situations. Today, it is a scary school shooting in another town; tomorrow, it could be a bullying situation or a concern for a friend who is making unsafe choices. Let your child know that no subject is off-limits.

Clinical psychologists Robin Gurwitch and Marni Axelrad suggest we begin the conversation by acknowledging that something terrible has happened and asking what children have already heard. Listening to what they have to say provides clues for how to continue the conversation. They may have misinformation that we can replace with facts. Or they might be most upset by the realization that children similar in age to them were hurt and need reassurance that their school is taking measures to protect them.

Child psychologist Karen Luley says that it is also important to ask children how they feel about what has happened. One way to introduce this topic is to share our own feelings, albeit in moderation. It’s okay to say we feel sad, or worried, or angry, and then to ask children how they are feeling. Just remember to talk as well about how you (and they) might manage your feelings so they don’t become too overwhelming. Have a good cry together and then snuggle up to read a favorite book. Suggest a walk or a breathing exercise to calm your anxiety, or write a letter to your representative asking for stronger gun control measures to channel your anger.

Doing something to respond also empowers children to feel that they are able to make a difference. Research local organizations in Uvalde that are mobilizing to help the families and make a donation. Look for groups in your community that address gun violence or family tragedies and ask what you can do to support their cause. Contact your child’s teacher for ideas about how your family can support your school. When children believe they are change agents, they are less likely to worry about being victimized.

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