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How To Talk with Kids about School Shootings

 A week ago, I sat in a hotel room watching news coverage breaking down the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. My heart sank as I listened to this young lady say that she had expected it to eventually happen near her.

When Columbine occurred, I remember being horrified but I did not expect it to happen again. Besides, I was already done with high school; it wouldn’t happen to me… Columbine no longer seems like an unbelievable tragedy. School shootings are terrifyingly common, and as a parent, the terror is very real.  
 
Today, as I got text updates from my mom friends about the shooting at local Noblesville West Middle School, and fielded a phone call from a frightened 16 year old, in between my client appointments, I was thankful that it was also my son’s last day of school, and I was picking him up after a (planned) early dismissal. The truth is that this could happen anywhere at any time. Parents are scared, and our kids are scared as well. 
 
We are scared, our kids are scared, and we need to talk about it together. Indy With Kids asked me to go Live on Facebook to answer questions from parents wondering how to talk about this with their kids. In addition, I want to provide this written follow up. 
 

How To Talk To Your Kids About School Shootings

If at all possible, be the one to tell them the news. They need to hear it from you, not from anyone else. Present the facts as succinctly as possible in easy to understand words. I told my 11 year old “today someone took a gun to their school and shot people.” I gave him the opportunity to ask questions before proceeding. 
 
It is important to answer their questions simply, directly, and honestly. It is also helpful to just answer the questions asked. Now is not the time to express your agenda or to encourage ‘us v. them’ thinking. You may not understand gun rights advocates, but we cannot teach our kids that people are other, bad, or even wrong. This can be a huge risk factor in future violent behavior. 
 
Be honest about your emotions. They need you to model that emotions are okay, help them to identify what they are feeling, and also model how to express emotions. It is also important that you are able to have the conversation calmly to communicate to your children that they are safe with you and you are capable of handling their emotions, whatever they may be. If you are too emotional, it may increase their anxiety about the situation or create an anxiety that you will not be able to take care of them.
 
Don’t leave the news or radio on. Kids need their questions answered, but they do not need dramatized news. The repetition of the 24 hour news cycle has a negative impact on all of us, but especially on children. 
 
Most important is to listen to your kids. Giving them the space to share their thoughts and emotions can be all the therapy that your child may need. 
- Reflecting back your child’s words to them, encourages them to go deeper.
Kid: Today was really scary
Mom: Today was really scary for you, huh?
Kid: Yea, when the alarms went off, I didn’t know if I should run or hide.
Mom: Wow. You didn’t know if you should run or hide when the alarms went off?
Kid: Right, the teacher told me to….
 
- You can encourage your child to go deeper simply by asking “Is there more?” after your reflection.
 
- Tell them they make sense. “It makes sense you would be scared!” is good “Don’t be scared” is not going to help. It may shut them down or may make them question themselves. 
 
- As your child shares emotions, ask them where they feel it in their body. This teaches emotional awareness and can help their processing. 
 
Try asking your child ‘Why do you think someone might do something like this?’ You can learn a lot about your child with this question. If you have any concerns about their answer, check with a therapist. 
 
If you don’t already know (your kids probably do) find out and talk about emergency procedures at your child’s school and reinforce them. In a crisis, your children will be most safe following the directions of the teachers who desperately want to protect them. 
 
Go for a walk or a drive. Both activity and not looking directly at a parent can help kids open up. When they do start to open up, give them your full attention, including eye contact, touch if possible, and getting on their level. Only avoid eye contact if your child is struggling with opening up face to face; sometimes it feels easier looking out the window as long as you know you have the full attention of the listener. 
 
Don’t simply let it be, follow up with your kids and check in if there is more they want to share or ask. Another strategy is to drop sentences like pebbles into a stream to see what the ripples may be. You could say “I imagine you could be nervous heading back to school on Tuesday” or “Sometimes I think about what I would do to make sure I got to you as quickly as possible if there was an emergency at school.” Pebbles are sentence that do not require a response but allow for one and communicate that a topic is something that you are willing to discuss if the child so desires. Occasionally dropping pebbles is an indirect way of opening up a topic for conversation that allows your child to determine when they are ready for the discussion. They may not respond in that moment, but they may open up later on. 
 

Helping Kids Manage Anxiety after a School Shooting

Remember, you are the best therapist for your child. Your child needs you, your attention, you creating safety and reassurance, your consistency, you accepting their feelings, ideas, and questions, you attuning to their moods and their needs, you helping them regulate and soothe themselves when they have trouble doing it. 
 
In a crisis it is time to return to home base, and you and your home are your child’s secure base. Slow down, stick close to home, and offer them opportunities for self soothing and co-regulation. Some things that may be soothing are sweet foods (think fruit more than ice cream), tight hugs and snuggles, rocking, swinging, trampoline or other repetitive, rhythmic motions, play, a hot bath… Teach your kiddos what you do when you feel upset to help you feel better. Going to bed early and making sure everyone has predictable, healthy meals is important as you return to the secure base. 
 
Another important aspect to reducing anxiety around situations like this is to give them ways to feel empowered. Part of the anxiety around school shootings is that we feel helpless. If your child wants to do something, encourage that action. Any child can have a lemonade stand or bake sale. If they want to express themselves, help them write a letter to state and federal legislators. If there are rallies or demonstrations, they can attend and even make their own signs. It is most empowering for them to follow their own ideas, so let them take the lead. 
 

When to Seek Counseling

Remember, you are the best therapist for your child. Giving them the space to share their thoughts and emotions with you may be all the therapy that they need. In general, I think dragging a child to therapy can do more harm than good. Research tells us that kids get as much or more benefit from their parent going to counseling (working on themselves to be a better parent and learning therapeutic parenting techniques) than if the child is in counseling. If your child asks for counseling, by all means find an experienced, highly trained therapist who works with children. 
 
If your child is hesitant, you can offer to let them try it out. You can also tell them about Brainspotting - a power therapy where they don’t actually have to talk to the therapist. In Brainspotting, I teach children that their brains have the same self-healing power that Wolverine from the X-men has; we simply need to set up the situation for their brains to heal themselves. It is a powerful, efficient treatment method that has shown amazing benefits for kids, and it is likely to resolve these specific traumas in just a few sessions. In addition, I think it is important to note that following the Sandy Hook shooting, surveys ranked Brainspotting as the most effective treatment people experienced to help them process that school shooting
 
Your child may not ask for counseling verbally, but you may see other signs. Acting out is an expression of emotion. Often kids don’t know how to put the words together to express their concerns, so they throw a fit or cause trouble in other ways. Even things as extreme as enuresis may simply be the child communicating just how ‘pissed’ they are according to Dr. Wayne Duehn of the University of Texas. If you can hear the deep needs behind their behavior or words, you may be able to address them. Or you may need the help of a therapist to understand how to help your child, and that is wonderful as well. So many therapists are deeply concerned about this and truly want to help in any way that they can. 
 
You may notice that your child regresses or starts to act younger than their age. This is generally simply a sign that they need some additional nurturing and safety. It will very likely resolve itself if those needs are met. If your child wants to sit in your lap, rock your child, even if they seem “too big”. If your child asks for you to cut up their food, do it and even hand them the first bite on the fork. Meet your child and his or her needs wherever they are, and he or she will likely bounce back fairly quickly. 
 
To find a local Brainspotting therapist, visit Brainspotting Indy. Several of us want to help at a reduced cost. My office will be providing pro bono sessions with Lisa Floyd for students and staff directly impacted. (Schedule here or email us.) It can be difficult to find really experienced and well trained therapists who work with kids, but Indy Child Therapist is currently taking new clients for traditional therapy. I strongly encourage you to to consider driving or paying more to work with someone who is really good. Your child’s mental health is worth it. 

 

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