My heart sank on May 18, 2018 when I received an email from my son’s school. The subject line: Urgent.
What’s wrong, I immediately worried. I opened the email and read that the school had been placed on lockdown. I quickly scanned the email to figure out what happened. I hadn’t seen the news that day, and that’s when I learned of the Sante Fe High School shooting where 10 people were killed. This school is only about 20 miles from my son’s school. The closeness of it really hit home. The pain that those families must be experiencing is just unimaginable. My heart, thoughts, and prayers go out to all families who have lost loved ones due to gun violence.
To date, there have been 23 school shootings this year, per a count done by CNN. Unfortunately, school shootings are no longer a rare occurrence. Parents now face the challenge of talking to their children about school violence.
Parents often seek the support and guidance of their pediatrician when tough topics come up. As a parent and a pediatrician, I help to support other families as well as my own. As parents, we primarily are tasked with supporting our children. Some professionals recommend that parents of very young children, those less than 8 years of age, not discuss school shootings with their children. Young children may struggle to understand. However, if a child asks about it or if they are likely to have exposure to it, parents should speak with their child in an age and developmentally-appropriate manner.
It is better for your child to hear about it from you rather than from another child or through the media. It is important that your child knows that you are listening and that you care about what they are saying. Below are my six tips for how to support your young child when there is a school shooting.
Before talking with your child, try to gauge your own emotions and process them as much as you can. It is important to “put your oxygen mask on first,” as it’s necessary that you take care of yourself so that you can take care of your children. If this means taking a ten minute walk or talking with a spouse or good friend, please take time to do so.
2. Follow your child’s lead.
Find out what they know first. Ask them what they know about the event and if they have any specific questions.
3. Answer your child’s questions in a way they can understand.
Avoiding questions may make your child feel that the situation is too awful to discuss or that their questions are not important to you. Give simple and concrete explanations. It’s best to use short and simple answers and to avoid graphic details. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” For example, if your child asks, “Why did they do this?” answering “I don’t know” is appropriate and honest.
4. Monitor for behavioral changes.
Sometimes young children may not voice that they are scared, upset, or angry. Rather, they may have difficulty sleeping, have increased tantrums or irritability, may have changes in their appetite, or may not enjoy things that they used to. These are normal responses and typically improve over time. Many children synthesize the information quickly while others may take several months to recover.
5. Limit exposure to media such as television, internet, and social media.
Even young children pay attention to what they hear. They may not fully understand and may not voice fears or concerns that they have related to what they’ve seen. If your child does have exposure, ask them what they understand and if they have questions, and be sure to explain what they have seen and answer their questions.
6. Reassure your child that you, their teachers, and local authorities are doing everything they can to keep them safe.
However, it is important not to make false promises like, “This is over and nothing like this will ever happen again.” Reassure your child that you will do all that you can to keep them safe. Above all, ensure your children that you love them.
“It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” For example, if your child asks, “Why did they do this?” answering “I don’t know” is appropriate and honest.”
Talking with your child may be one of the most important ways to support him or her through a tragedy. Find a quiet time to talk when there are no distractions such as after dinner or before bed. Think about what you would like to say, be open and honest, but be careful not to talk too much. It is okay to share your feelings with your child. If you are upset, for example, that gives you the opportunity to model that even though you’re upset, you can keep going. This may help restore normalcy. Once your child’s questions have been answered, let him or her know that you are always available if they have more questions.
If you are concerned that your child is not functioning well, such as not engaging in play, performing well in his or her school setting, or is getting worse after a few months, be sure to seek help from a mental health professional.★
Dr. Eboni Smith Hollier, aka Dr. Eboni, is board-certified in Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics as well as General Pediatrics. She is a national speaker, consultant, and bestselling author. Through her videos, programs, and bestselling book, The 7 Practices of Exceptional Parents, she helps parents to better understand, accept, and support their child’s development. As the founder and chief medical advisor of DrEboniPEDS.com, she supports and offers counseling to parents to assist them in helping their children reach their personal developmental potential.