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What to say to kids about school shootings to ease their stress

Nineteen children and two adults were killed during the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Parents are struggling to cope with the loss and with how to explain it to their children.
Allison Dinner
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AFP via Getty Images
Nineteen children and two adults were killed during the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Parents are struggling to cope with the loss and with how to explain it to their children.

If you have school-age children, chances are they've already talked to their classmates about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. So what's the best way to know how they're feeling and what they're thinking? Ask them.

"Children's questions may be very different from adults'," says David Schonfeld, a pediatrician who directs the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. And the best way to determine how much information they need is to listen to them, he says.

"Before we can offer reassurance or help them with what's bothering them, we have to understand what their actual concerns are," Schonfeld says. His group has developed guidelines for talking to children after a tragic event.

Kids often ask who is to blame, what could have been done to prevent the tragedy or could it happen at my school? Truthful answers are important to build trust. In a year when the U.S. has already seen 27 school shootings and more than 200 mass shootings, the unfortunate answer is: Although school is typically a safe place, there are risks.

"A lot of people say to me, you know, 'This is just the new normal,' and my reaction to them is that there is nothing normal about this," Schonfeld says.

When 19 children are gunned down, it is cause for deep distress. "It ought to be distressing — it's an unacceptable situation," he says. But for now, it's an unfortunate reality of life in the United States. "We can help kids learn to cope with the distress that they feel when they recognize inherent dangers that are part of the world," Schonfeld says.

A child's age will determine how much information to share, but that's not the only factor. Their emotional reaction may be linked to how much trauma they've experienced in the past or how closely they're connected to a tragedy. If victims were their peers, the event will take a stronger emotional toll compared with children who hear about the shooting on the news. Regardless, it will take time for parents to comfort children and help them process such tragic events.

"We need to be patient, and sometimes especially young kids need to have these conversations over and over," says Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. "Sometimes they need it in little chunks. They might not be able to digest everything in one sitting," Brymer told NPR's Morning Edition.

The American School Counselor Association has gathered a list of resources and tips to help after a school shooting. At the top is the recommendation to keep routines in place. Even if kids are anxious or fearful, there's a benefit to going to school and maintaining daily activities. As the organization explains in its guide, "Kids gain security from the predictability of routine."

The organization says it's also helpful to limit how much media you and your children take in, whether it's social media, radio, TV or reading news online. In a crisis, the main reason to watch, listen or read media coverage is to understand what's happening. "But if you're just watching the same coverage over and over again and it's not helping you learn anything new that's important to you and your family, then you probably should disconnect," says Schonfeld.

In the days and weeks that follow a tragedy, parents should talk to their children about how to cope when they feel concerned or anxious. There are some really good books out there to have those conversations around, Brymer says. She recommends Once I Was Very Very Scared, by Chandra Ghosh Ippen, for the preschool set. In the story, lots of animals go through scary experiences, but each reacts differently and has its own way of coping. Brymer says books like this can assist parents and caregivers in helping children figure out the strategy that works best for them.

For parents of older children, another strategy is to help them convert feelings of anger or anxiety into action. Schonfeld says it's natural to be angry and want to blame someone after a school shooting. But if kids direct their anger at an individual who acted in hatred — such as the shooter — it doesn't take away grief or solve the problem. Anger can beget anger.

An alternative approach is to get involved in initiatives to address gun violence. For example, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., began pushing for gun control after the 2018 mass shooting there.

"It didn't solve the problem, but it did make a difference," says Schonfeld. The students have been effective advocates in bringing attention to gun violence.

"So I think, yes, kids can be part of the solution, but the adults have to be a big part of the solution too," he says.

The bottom line, Schonfeld says, is to keep having conversations with your kids. Ask what they're thinking and feeling — it's a good place to start.

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