School Shootings: Parents Should Talk to Children of Every Age
Ellie McCann, Regional Extension Educator — Family Relations, and Kathleen Olson, Program Director — Partnering for School Success
Revised December 2012.
When a school shooting occurs, like the Sandy Hook Elementary School or Virginia Tech shootings, it may make your child feel vulnerable. They may need help coping with their feelings. Parents should "check in" with their children of every age to see how they're feeling about the school shooting. It is important to know what children are thinking or feeling and be prepared to support them.
Keep in Mind the Age of Your Child
The age of your child will make a difference in how you need to react. Preschoolers through age five may have seen reports on the news. Begin by saying, “That looks pretty scary, doesn’t it? What do you think about it?”
For school age children, ask if they have seen the reports and talk about your own feelings by saying, “I’m very sad for all of those people and their families.” Go on to discuss that it is important not to let what happened scare us so much that we don’t have fun and enjoy our lives. Remember that young children react largely to the attitudes and emotional responses of those around them. The meaning of an event for children is drawn more significantly from the reactions of others than from the event itself.
With older children and teens, it is more effective to talk about your own feelings first. If you share your feelings, it may help your teen to talk about the tragedy and their own fears. For emerging adults on college campus’ you can also discuss the safety procedures of their specific campus. ”It is important for children of all ages to be reassured about their own safety.”
It is important to talk to your teenager about school violence whether they are at home or attending college, and listen to his or her thoughts and concerns on this issue. The following are some topics to discuss with older children and teens related to school violence:
- It is okay to express fear at what has been happening and compassion for the students and families who have survived this tragedy.
- Explain the distinction between being different from other students and having severe problems that lead to extreme violence.
- Express to your teen how important it is to let you or another adult know if they hear another student threatening violence towards himself or others.
- Talk about what it might feel like to be an outcast at school, and find out if your teen is having trouble fitting in.
- Talk with your teen about solving problems constructively and peacefully; help them to find appropriate solutions to problems without using violence.
Some children may glorify this tragedy by say it was “cool.” We need to continue to emphasize the unacceptability of violence to settle issues or solve problems. We need to keep on stressing with children and teens that violence does not work.
Children who are distressed may act in ways that aren't clearly connected to the event. They may mope, be irritable or be aggressive. As a parent, be available over time. For some kids, these feelings won't heal immediately.
Even though the news has been filled with reports of the recent school shooting, emphasize that the majority of children are safe at school. You may be interested in seeing more parent and professional resources related to school shootings and school violence on the Violence in Our Schools web page.
Dworkin, J. (2007). What if the next shooting is at my school?. Teen Talk: A survival guide for parents of teenagers. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota Extension.
Pitzer, R. (1999). Parents should talk to children about school shootings. University of Minnesota Extension Service.
Olson, K. (2005). Parents should talk to children about school shootings. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota Extension.