Guide: Resources for families to talk about school shootings

In the wake of yet another mass shooting, how do we talk to our kids about gun violence?
High profile acts of violence can confuse children who may feel in danger or worry that their friends or loved ones are at risk.
Below is a guide with tips and resources for families:

SENSE OF NORMALCY

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) says parents and school personnel can help children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears.

REASSURANCE

Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are OK when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately, NASP recommends.
Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate - CLICK HERE for Common Sense Media's age-based approach to discussing news of school shootings with kids.
Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them.
Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school.
Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society.

MAKE TIME TO TALK

Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient; children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.
Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can also indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of mental health professional if you are at all concerned.
NATIONAL PARENT HELPLINE: Call the National Parent Helpline at 1-855-4A PARENT (1-855-427-2736) to get emotional support from a trained advocate. They are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

REVIEW SAFETY PROCEDURES

This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.

LIMIT TELEVISION VIEWING

Limit television viewing and be aware if the television is on in common areas. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Adults should be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children.
Adults should also be mindful of being overexposed to the news - as it could increase your stress. The images can be very powerful in reawakening your feeling of distress. The American Psychological Association recommends that adults schedule some breaks to distract themselves from thinking about the incident and focus instead on something they enjoy or lift their spirits.

MAINTAIN A NORMAL ROUTINE

Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.

STRIVE FOR BALANCE

When a tragedy occurs, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and have a negative or pessimistic outlook. Balance that viewpoint by reminding yourself of people and events which are meaningful and comforting, even encouraging. Striving for balance empowers you and allows for a healthier perspective on yourself and the world around you.
NASP has these suggested points to emphasize when talking to children:
1. Schools are safe places. School staff works with parents and public safety providers (local police and fire departments, emergency responders, hospitals, etc.) to keep you safe.
2. The school building is safe because … (cite specific school procedures).
We all play a role in the school safety. Be observant and let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous or frightened.
3. There is a difference between reporting, tattling or gossiping. You can provide important information that may prevent harm either directly or anonymously by telling a trusted adult what you know or hear.
4. Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community).
5. Senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand. Doing things that you enjoy, sticking to your normal routine, and being with friends and family help make us feel better and keep us from worrying about the event.
6. Sometimes people do bad things that hurt others. They may be unable to handle their anger, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or suffering from mental illness. Adults (parents, teachers, police officers, doctors, faith leaders) work very hard to get those people help and keep them from hurting others. It is important for all of us to know how to get help if we feel really upset or angry and to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
7. Stay away from guns and other weapons. Tell an adult if you know someone has a gun. Access to guns is one of the leading risk factors for deadly violence.