There was a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
It’s too much. It’s too often. It is unimaginable. I am going to attempt to address some of your questions about how to navigate talking with your children about the massacre in Texas, but there is no right answer and it feels disingenuous to suggest that we keep telling our children that they are safe. And yet, we must.
At the same time, it’s understandable to want to completely shield our children from the information. And yet, we must not.
We have to share what is necessary given their temperament, age and exposure, but we do not have to over-share or terrify them. We have to balance the truth of what happened with the fact that we still need them to know they are safe.
This shooting is particularly gutting for people because these children were so young, and because this feels so close to home for many of us. School shootings make no sense. Elementary school should be a peaceful, happy place, where the biggest stressor is whether or not our kids will have someone nice to sit with at lunch.
Kids are so attuned to our emotional states, and as parents it is impossible not to feel the heaviness of what a horrific loss those families are experiencing in Texas. It is impossible not to imagine the terrified children, those precious lives lost and the trauma that will live with all of the witnesses who survived. I have a 12 year old and a 15 year old so they both knew about the school shooting before I picked them up from school yesterday.
For older children like mine, giving them access to take action can help in these dark times. Getting helpful is the antidote for hopelessness, and getting informed is the antidote to apathy. One example of a way to start is getting involved in organizations like studentsdemandaction.org.
Most of you asked questions about speaking with younger children about this tragedy. Even our young children easily sense when something's going on around them or when things aren't right with us. Without an adult to explain what they are sensing, children’s imaginations often create scenarios that are even worse than reality.
This is why it’s more complicated, but equally important, to decide on what, when, and how to respond to your school aged children who are too old to shield, but too young to process.
A few notes:
If you have preschoolers, you do not need to share this information AT ALL unless you believe they will have exposure from another source. In that case, you can lightly modify this language to be age appropriate.
If you have teenagers, this is a time to hear what they think about these horrific events and not to lecture. Our teens are learning to understand the world for themselves and may very well have a lot to teach us. We have to support them to think more deeply through thought-provoking questions. We also have to get comfortable acknowledging for our teens that we just do not understand why certain things happen and why our country has policies that do not protect school children from this kind of terror.
Take a deep breath, so you are calm and regulated. It can help to physically put your hand on your heart to soothe your nervous system. This is the first step before any difficult conversation.
Acknowledge your own emotions. If you are thinking about these events, reading about them, and regularly watching the news, keep in mind that it’s okay to have strong feelings and for your children to see your emotions, but they need to know that you can take care of yourself. Try saying something like, “I bet you noticed that I’m sad, and that makes sense. I know how to take care of myself when I am sad and I also know how to take care of you. We are safe.”
See what they know. “You may have heard about what happened in Texas. I’m curious what you know and I’m here to answer questions.”
Be honest and clear. “A gunman went into a school and shot at children and teachers.” or for an older/more inquisitive elementary school child “An 18 year old gunman got access to a rifle and came into a school and shot at students and teachers. Guns kill people. That’s why you’re seeing so many grown-ups who are so sad. You are safe, we are safe, but we care about the experience of people everywhere. We also want to do things to ensure that laws are put into place to prevent this from ever happening again.”
Pause. Let the information land and avoid oversharing or adding unnecessary details. Resist the urge to talk through uncomfortable silence and see what your child has to say.
Listen and make room for any reaction. Your child does not need to be interested, have a strong reaction, or even express sadness. You are having this conversation in order to affirm that they can come to you if and when they do hear about things, and so that they can better understand the unspoken cues of our collective distress. You are also having this conversation in anticipation that they will hear from other sources and you want them to know that when possible, you are always doing your best to share things with them first.
Describe the age-appropriate facts. If your child has questions, provide simple answers, or look up answers together on child-friendly news sources, like Newsela. If your child is repeating mis-information they’ve heard, help them to think through more reliable sources. Answer only the questions they’ve asked and resist going into longer explanations. I want to say that this is one conversation but unfortunately, this is unlikely to be just one conversation.
When you can’t answer a question, admit it. These are complicated issues that present an opportunity for critical thinking and investigation. They also require all of us to accept a reality where we don’t always have answers. We don’t want this to feel normal for our children, or like something we have to accept, but we also need to admit to them that we cannot understand the thoughts and actions of others.
Stick to routines. Whenever things in the world feel uncertain it’s important to lean on routines to keep things as stable as possible for your child. This is also helpful for YOU to manage your own emotions and be present for your family.
Strategize together. If you notice your child is having anxiety around this discussion, this tragedy, or other current events, let them know that you are there to support them. Strategize ways for them to remain informed AND take care of their own emotions. Reassure them that their anxiety makes sense given the circumstances, and that we all feel similarly.
One final thought: Keep in mind that there is never really a reason to expose children to TV news reports and graphic details of scary topics. Large doses of media coverage can be very harmful (even to adults) and unnecessarily scary. When we over empathize, it is harder to have rational compassion because our pain centers light up. This can overwhelm our nervous system and shut us down. In that state, you’re not helping anyone. The news earns higher ratings by keeping an audience engaged and anxious. Turn it off the minute you feel your nervous system become activated. Find a healthier way for you to keep informed without obsessively watching the news, and model for your children how to keep connected without becoming unhinged.
I’m here for any follow-up questions so please let me know what you need.
Thanks for being a part of Raising Good Humans. We are in this together.