School Shootings: How to Help Kids Cope

Since the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 that left 19 children and two teachers dead, fear and grief have gripped classrooms and households across the nation.

Many families struggled with whether or not they should talk to their children about the horrific event. But experts say it’s important to have that conversation — in an age appropriate way — as many children and teenagers may find out about the shooting online or hear inaccurate information from friends.

“We want them to hear it from us,” says Dave Anderson, clinical psychologist and vice president of school and community programs at the Child Mind Institute, a New York City-based nonprofit. “It’s better when they’re not in the dark and get correct information that they can process with a trusted adult.”

U.S. News spoke with Gerard Lawson, past president of the American Counseling Association and professor in the school of education at Virginia Tech, and Anderson, about advice for parents on discussing school shootings with their children and signs of distress to look for after a traumatic news event.

[READ: What Parents Need to Know About Private School Safety Plans.]

Approaches to Talking With Your Children

Early Elementary School

Preschool or kindergarten-aged kids may not fully understand what’s happening, Lawson says.

“At that age, they’re more likely to express any of their fear or helplessness through their play,” he adds. “Parents can be tuned in to how they’re playing and ask them some questions about it. Help them to express what’s going on in their play, so that you can see whether they’re going to resolve it on their own or whether you need to reach out for some additional support.”

With young kids, the conversation might be a little bit more indirect. Anderson suggests parents say something like: “There was a person who lives far from here who did something that was extremely hurtful to other people. A number of people died and that’s one of the reasons why we are very sad. And this actually happened in a school.”

Late Elementary School to Early Middle School

There is more of an understanding of the permanence of death in this age group, so families can provide more of the facts.

Anderson advises parents to say something along the lines of: “There was a person who was quite violent and, in this case, chose as an expression of anger to go to a nearby elementary school and engage in gun violence there.” Then see what types of questions, responses or feelings arise.

“Often what we see is that they may want to hear and talk more about it. They may want to know if there’s a plan to keep them safe,” Lawson says. “Follow the child’s lead. Ask questions of them and let them ask questions of us. But be sure that we’re not getting too far in front of them, so that we’re not providing them with more information than they are ready for or more than they’re asking for.”

Late Middle School to High School

With teenagers, the conversation is similar to what you would have with other adults. But note that their brains, even at that age, are not fully formed, Lawson says. So ask them what they’ve heard, what the incident means to them and how they’ve understood it. “We want to let them react to it and show us how they’re processing it before we talk to them about how we might be able to respond,” Anderson says.

Questions Kids May Have

During these difficult conversations, there are some questions that parents are more prepared to hear, including:

— How many people died?

— How old were the victims?

— Who were they?

— Where did this happen?

— Do we know anyone?

— Is this in our state?

— Could this happen at my school?

But then there are the questions that can be difficult to answer, like how these incidents can be prevented and why they occur.

Lawson advises parents to check in with themselves first before sharing all their thoughts with their children. “Talk about how there was somebody who was very disturbed and did something that hurt a lot of people. Then follow the child’s lead and see where that goes,” he says. “They will ask the kinds of questions that are going to fill in the gaps for them.”

Parents should be honest about what they don’t know. “It’s perfectly fine to say to your kid, ‘I wanted to make sure you heard this from me. I want to be here for your questions, but there are some questions I may not even have answers for,'” Anderson says.

He adds that parents should try to relay the message that “even though we need to take steps to make sure this happens much less frequently in our country, these incidents are still extremely rare and the vast majority of us are still very safe on any given day.”

[READ: Mindfulness Activities for Kids.]

Communicate With Your Child’s School

After a school shooting or incident of mass violence occurs, some schools send out information to families detailing their safety plans, threat assessment processes and whether conversations are being held in the classroom. But some are more clear than others about what’s happening in school.

“What we try to remind parents of in any situation where there’s a high level of emotionality is that their kids’ teachers and school administrators want to take steps to keep their kids safe,” Anderson says. “So this should be in the spirit of partnership.”

Lawson advises parents to reach out to school counselors, who may be working with teachers on how to have conversations with their students about the event.

Watch for Signs of Distress

“Kids are being exposed to news of a traumatic incident that can be really emotionally upsetting, but it’s not the same as actually being in the incident,” Anderson says.

For children directly involved in these events, it’s important to monitor for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares, having flashbacks or difficulty focusing.

For kids hearing about the events, experts advice keeping a close eye on those with anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions. “We want to make sure we support those kids,” Anderson says.

“Kids who are prone to difficulties with depression may feel incredibly affected by this after hearing the news, and feel sad for the families and what’s been going on in our country,” he adds. “Kids who are prone to anxiety may find themselves really distracted by a lot of anxious thoughts about how their school security is working, whether or not they recognize that person walking through their hallways or what might be going on in their town.”

For children who have been exposed to troubling news but who don’t normally exhibit anxiety or mood changes, parents should look for unexplained stomachaches and headaches or changes in behavior — how they eat and sleep and their interest in connecting with peers or participating in activities.

If you see any troubling signs, reach out to a licensed mental health professional.

“Sadly, because we’ve had a lot of experience with mass violence, we’ve become better at being able to help parents work through their own experiences of this and their own fears about their children,” Lawson says, “but also working with the kids and helping them work through those emotions and understand that they are safe. All of those are pieces we can help them with.”

[READ: Understanding School-Based Mental Health Services.]

Access to Online Information

Though news coverage of a traumatic event might be restricted in a household, a child could still be exposed to graphic footage and updates online, particularly through social media.

“Independent of incidents like this, parents should be monitoring their kids’ screen time,” Anderson says. Social media can negatively affect youth, especially those who exhibit anxiety, have experienced trauma or are prone to high levels of emotionality.

So if your child uses social media, try to find a way to have a non-judgmental and open conversation. Rather than saying, “You’ve spent way too much time on screens today” or “You’re rotting your brain,” ask about what they have read and how they are feeling, Anderson says.

Lawson says parents should talk with their children ahead of time about social media use and encourage them to reach out if they see something that causes discomfort or confusion. “It’s probably worth keeping an eye on and making sure that kids aren’t going down into the dark corners of the internet where things may actually get worse instead of better,” he says.

How to Manage Your Own Fear and Anxiety

“There’s not really a way, and there shouldn’t necessarily be a way, to make it so you don’t feel, in relation to events like this,” Anderson says, “considering the kind of terror that people feel the moments before their death in those incidents is something that I think is sitting with every single parent across the country.”

It’s important to identify how you’re feeling and model that for your children. “This is scary and it’s so sad,” Lawson says. “These sorts of things are helpful to put some labels on and name that language of the emotional experience that you’re having so it doesn’t feel so out of control.”

Then, to the best of your ability, stick to a routine. “Kids rely on routines so that they know what’s predictable and there are fewer surprises in their world,” he adds.

Additionally, practice self-care by exercising, eating well, staying hydrated, avoiding alcohol or drugs and limiting exposure to news coverage.

“Seeing the faces of the kids who died on the news, I told myself I needed to look at them because it helps to make sure that I’m viscerally moved to action,” Anderson says. “But then beyond that, I turned it off. I couldn’t look at those faces any longer without seeing the face of my son. It’s about caring for ourselves, but it’s also understanding that we’re not going to be OK for a little while.”

Resources for Children and Parents

These organizations all have guides on processing and coping with traumatic events:

American Counseling Association

American School Counselor Association

American Red Cross

Child Mind Institute (including multilingual trauma resources)

National Center for School Safety

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association

I think one of the things that we forget to talk about when we’re talking about a tragedy is that there’s also going to be an opportunity to recognize resilience,” Lawson says. “Unfortunately, it’s … a less exclusive club now of communities that have had this kind of experience. As difficult as this is going to be, there’s also going to be opportunities for that community to be able to come together and realize how resilient they are, despite something horrific happening.”

More from U.S. News

Bullying in Private Schools Versus Public Schools

Schools Confront Continued Mental Health Needs

As Students Return to School, So Does School Violence

School Shootings: How to Help Kids Cope originally appeared on usnews.com

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