Talking to Kids About School Violence
Expert advice to guide your kids through the emotions related to school shootings.
It has happened again. Another school shooting, and, more specifically, another school shooting here in Colorado. Grappling with our own fears, sorrow, and frustration, it’s hard to know how to communicate with our children during these times. They are dealing with feelings similar to our own, and even more, worrying that an ordinary day at school could take a terrifying turn.
To better understand how to communicate with our kids in light of recent events, we spoke with Dr. Katie Godfrey, licensed marriage and family therapist, and child and family team coordinator at The Catalyst Center, for guidance. Here’s what she had to say:
What a challenging school year this has been for Colorado parents, teachers, and students. With the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in April, we were already thinking about violence in our schools. Then we experienced multiple school lock-downs when, on April 16, just days before the anniversary of the Columbine tragedy, the Florida woman who had a history of fascination with Columbine High School, flew into Denver, bought a gun, and was suspected of making threats to local schools. This incident resulted in the most massive school cancellation in Colorado history, with half a million students told to stay home.
And now, once again, students in Colorado experience the terror; this time at STEM School Highlands Ranch where two students opened fire, killing one student and wounding eight more. School violence is affecting all of us in Colorado, some more directly than others.
School security has also changed in the past decades. Many schools now have metal detectors and guards. More fencing has been erected and more buildings locked. Our children practice lockdown drills and experience actual lockdowns and lockouts in an effort to be prepared for an intruder. Tragically, schools have gone from a place of safety and security to a place some people target.
Advice regarding how to talk to children about these issues has shifted over the years. As a marriage and family therapist working with children and teens, and as a mother, I have been having many conversations with children about school shootings.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you talk to your kids:
Take their “temperature”
How are your kids feeling right now? I have been seeing a number of reactions in children, ranging from nonchalance to fear. It is important to know how your child is reacting because the scared child needs reassurance and support, and you also do not want to induce fear in a child who is not scared. If they are scared or anxious, do not dismiss their feelings. Agree with them: This is scary! For older children who don’t seem bothered, it can be helpful to talk about how sad it is that school shootings are so commonplace and that people are no longer shocked. Younger children often cannot comprehend what this means. That’s ok for now.
Be their source
Some parents may be tempted to not give their child a lot of information in an attempt to shield them from such horrific news. Keep in mind that they will be talking to other children at school, and some of those children have older siblings and may therefore have more information. It’s better for your child to hear the truth from you versus other children. Additionally, if children are not given the information, they will create their own version of the story, which may be far worse and can lead to more anxiety.
Be honest with children
As much as we may want to reassure them and tell them that they are perfectly safe and there will never be a shooting at their school, we, including our children, know that is not true. Answer all of their questions honestly, while being age appropriate. As social media and cell phones have become more prevalent, oftentimes parents aren’t the ones to share the news with their child. Children may have gotten too much information or misinformation from the internet that needs to be corrected with accurate facts.
Respond to the “why”
Many times children will ask why someone would do something like this. Explain to them that sometimes we just don’t know why, but that people who do this are not well. Try to avoid using words like “mental illness,” as this is such a broad term and the vast majority of people who have mental illness are not violent. Instead, let them know that this person had a sickness in their brain, and so they were not thinking clearly. The truth is, we do not really know. You can tell them that, and also reassure them that most people are good and that this is rare.
Shield them from any visuals, such as the news or video from the shooting
This may be challenging because of the prevalence of screens, phones, and computers. However, it is important. Visuals “stick” in a person’s mind more than words, and can increase fear and anxiety, and cause nightmares. First-person video games where the player is the shooter should also be restricted, if they have not already been.
Talk about your child’s specific school
Remind them that they are well cared for at school, and that their teachers will do everything in their power to keep them safe. Use their teachers’ names in order to remind the child of specific people at school who care about them. It can be helpful for some children to tell you about their school’s safety procedures. This reminds the child that the school has put work into being prepared, and for some children, helps them feel prepared as well. Let children know that if you thought anything bad would happen to them at school, that you would not send them. They need to know that their parents trust the school.
Remind your kids that you are always available to talk, and follow up with them in the upcoming days and weeks as feelings can change over time.
OK to Tell
The stigma of the tattletale is fading. Instead kids need to be empowered to share worrisome encounters.
It’s important for kids to share things they see at—or related to—school that seem suspicious or potentially dangerous. Bev Marquez, a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners, which answers the 24/7 Colorado Crisis Services phone line and text line, offers these tips to share with kids to help them take action when they see or hear something that concerns them:
Trust your gut.
If kids see or hear someone express the following, they should believe that it’s a real possibility and talk to someone who can help (see number 3):
- That they have a plan
- They want to hurt others or act out
- They are feeling isolated
- That things are unjust
- They talk about retaliation
- They show a fascination, or are obsessed with, mass shootings
Pay attention to not just homicidal thoughts, but suicidal thoughts.
Kids who were at some risk of self-harm before this, will sometimes take that to a higher risk level because of sadness, fear, or feelings of hopelessness. “So, if we have a peer who is really having a hard time coping with what they’ve seen or heard, pay extra attention to that,” says Marquez. “Ask friends questions like, ‘This is really tough for you, have you had any thoughts of suicide?’”
Talk to someone who can help.
Whether it’s a parent, someone at school, a counselor, or a program like Colorado Crisis Services, kids need to reach out. No one expects them to know exactly how to handle these topics, says Marquez. “The thing about Colorado Crisis Services, and particularly the text line (Text “TALK” to 38255), is that, 24/7, there will be counselors answering. Kids can talk about what they are noticing in themselves or in someone else. We’ll help them assess the level of risk that we perceive and what the options are, given that level of risk. We can problem-solve with them and they can be anonymous. Kids don’t want to get their friends in trouble if they are thinking about hurting someone or thinking about hurting themselves. So that’s not where we start. We start with having concern and support in place and build an appropriate response from there.”
Another source in Colorado, Safe2Tell, encourages kids (or adults) to anonymously report anything that is concerning or potentially threatening to themself or anyone around them.
Wondering what signs kids should watch out for? This list of warning signs will help.
Organizations That Can Help:
- Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence – Colorado School Safety Resource Center
- Colorado Crisis Services: 1-844-493-8255 or Text “TALK” to 38255
- Colorado School Safety Resource Center (CSSRC)
- Contact your local community mental health agency
- Denver Therapist Network: For ongoing help or to find a therapist in your area.
- Safe Communities Safe Schools (SCSS)