Amanda Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Practitioner

“I don’t know what to say.”

“I don’t want to make it worse.”

Over the past week, I’ve heard from parents, teachers, and other adults asking how to talk to children about the school shooting in Florida. These discussions can be difficult for adults and children, but they’re vital. As adults, we need to know what the children in our lives are thinking and feeling in order to provide them with emotional support.

Listen first. Our instinct is often to reassure children that they are safe, give them advice, or try to fix their problems. But if we jump into reassurance too quickly, we’ll miss out on valuable information that children need to share. We could also unknowingly minimize what children are experiencing, causing them to shut down. Before you take any action, fully listen to the child. Ask questions in order to seek to understand. For example: “What’s it like at school for you? What do you think about the shooting? Do you have any worries or concerns?” Ask a question, then wait quietly, giving them room to think and respond. Your goal is to simply understand.

Validate their experience. It’s important to communicate that you understand and acknowledge the child’s experience—their thoughts and emotions—without judgment. If a child is not impacted at all by violent events at other schools, that’s okay. On the other hand, if they do have strong thoughts or feelings, it’s important to let them know you understand and you accept what they are experiencing, especially if you don’t agree. For example, if a child expresses anger and blames the teachers for the shooting, it’s important to acknowledge what they feel instead of trying to convince them otherwise. For example, “It sounds like you‘re mad at the teachers and you feel that they should have done something.” This doesn’t mean you are agreeing with them; you’re expressing understanding and validation.

Discuss safety. Children might have concerns about their safety or that of their peers, siblings, teachers, and other important people in their lives. After you carefully listen and validate their concerns, have a conversation and share information about their safety. The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends that adults inform children of what actions the adults around them—teachers, police, parents, and so on—are taking to keep them safe. If you don’t have this information, you can gather it by contacting the child’s school or local police.

Provide encouragement to continue communicating. Children need to know that they can come to you if they need to talk about school shootings or anything else. Encourage children to continue to open up to you or other adults. You might want to encourage them to connect with multiple adults, such as teachers, school counselors, parents, relatives, and trusted community members.

Discuss limiting exposure to media coverage. The APA recommends that adults monitor children’s intake of media coverage that shows or discusses school shootings or other traumatic events. Small children can perceive ongoing coverage as showing events that are reoccurring in that moment, not events that occurred in the past. For older children, constant exposure to media coverage can lead to increased stress. Be honest with children if you decide to limit their exposure. For example, you can say to a child: “I notice that you get upset when you watch the news. Let’s take a break for a while until you feel better.”

It’s important that we discuss school shootings and other traumatic events with the children in our lives. If you need help communicating with a child, consider participating in family therapy. If you feel that your child needs additional support, consider having them take part in individual therapy.

Symmetry Counseling provides both individual and family therapy. Contact us today at 312-578-9990 to schedule an appointment.

American Psychological Association (2018). Talking to your children about the recent spate of school shootings. [Website] Retrieved from