How to Talk to Your Kids About School Shootings

I am a home decor blogger, that is what you know me as. But what you might not know is that I am also a Certified School Counselor with my Masters in Counseling and School Counseling with over 10 years of (previous) counseling experience. I’m brushing off my counselor hat today in hopes to help anyone wondering how in the world you talk with your children about something as horrific as a school shooting. My heart absolutely breaks for all involved in today’s Connecticut school shooting. I’m the mom of a kindergartner and a second grader and tears spring to my eyes when I think of the grief those parents are currently experiencing. Our prayers for comfort and strength go out to the families and faculty.

So what do you say to your children about something so horrific? Should you even discuss such things?  The answers to these questions are going to greatly depend on the developmental stage of your kiddo. Below are some of my tips and suggestions for talking with elementary-aged children:

  • Find out what your child already knows and discuss honestly. Ask your child if his/her teacher discussed the incident today? Listen for any misinformation and discuss the situation honestly but without graphic detail. Shelter your kiddos from the gruesome facts.
  • Kids take their cues from you so be strong and calm. This situation is heartbreaking and shock, outrage, and tears are all normal and healthy reactions. However, when talking with your kids try and be in a place of calm.
  • Monitor your viewing of the news in front of little ones. The news is scary for adults let alone children. We all want to know the latest news, but it’s unfair to subject our kiddos to potentially traumatizing material. Perhaps watch on your computer or phone with earbuds or when children are out of earshot.
  • Ask your child if they feel safe at school? At home? Some little ones will be hesitant to talk. I often used paper and crayons with prompts to coax kiddos to express their feelings. In this situation, I would ask a child to draw me a picture of all the things that make them feel good and safe. I would then ask them to draw a picture of things that might make them feel unsafe at school and/or at home. Then I would ask the child to explain their drawings to me and discuss the fears and emphasize the strengths. The goal here is to allow your child to express his/her feelings and reassure him/her that their world is safe.
  • Reiterate the safety procedures in place at your child’s school and the rarity of school shootings. Situations like this can cause anxiety in kids about school attendance. Talk about the rules and procedures in the school (i.e. no running in the halls, fire drills, etc.) that keep the school a safe place. Most schools have sign-in procedures and locked doors with buzzers for entry. Emphasize all the ways your child’s school is made to be a safe place. Discuss safe adults (principal, teacher, specialist teachers, school counselor, nurse, lunch monitor etc.) who your child can talk to when/if they ever feel unsafe. Make sure your children know your telephone number and address! This is a great time to review.
  • All grief touches upon previous grief and brings previous loss to the surface. Sad news of any kind can bring to the surface unresolved grief, especially in children. If you’ve had a death of a loved one or loved pet, don’t be surprised if your child expresses missing that loved one. This is a good opportunity to teach your child empathy for what those who have lost loved ones are also feeling. Reaffirm your child’s feelings and express your religious beliefs. I would reaffirm to my boys that we have hope because we will see our loved one’s again in Heaven.
  • Empower your children. I can’t say it enough. Children have a basic developmental need to feel that the world is a safe place. Beyond just empowering your kids with knowledge of how to keep themselves safe in an emergency situation, help your children feel helpful right now. Brainstorm with your child how they can make their world a better and safer place and help your child act on those suggestions.

Hug your kiddo tight today and please pray for those who lost theirs. Blessings.


Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for sharing this. My son does not have school on Fridays (which I am incredibly grateful for today so he can be home with me). I was wondering how to even tell him what happened or if I even should. I am so saddened by these events and cannot even begin to imagine what those families of the victims are going through. It is a horrible, senseless tragedy.

  2. says

    Thank you for this post. I work in an elementary school and I’m stunned. It’s good for parents (and even teachers) to know this information.

    • Beth says

      Yes, letting your bub take the lead is a great way to go and using the “picture technique” that I mentioned above is great. It’s a more generic way of bringing it up and just talking about being safe.

    • Beth says

      Hi Don, Sorry for the delayed reply. My son is in kindergarten and his older brother is 8 and in second grade. I told both of them that something sad happened today and that I wanted to talk to them about being safe. With kindergartners I think it’s a good idea to do the coloring activity that I mention. Talk/draw about things that make us feel good and safe and things that make us feel uncomfortable, scared, unsafe. Emphasize how to stay safe, who are safe people to talk to in the school, and review telephone number and home address. Mentioning the shooting details are up to you and whether or not you think your kids will hear about it from someone else. If you think they won’t, then just keep the conversation about making good choices that keep us safe at school.

  3. Jennifer says

    This is difficult – there was a child with a gun in my kids’ school last year. The situation was taken care of before anything bad happened. But I know this is going to bring that time to mind.

  4. says

    Thank you Beth. I have a 2nd grader as well, and so far he is unaware of what happened. I am wondering if I should “pre-emptively” discuss it with, or let it go until if and when he does learn of it?

    • Beth says

      Hi Valerie, that is completely your call as a parent. You know your children best and what you feel is best for them right now. However, with my boys who are 6 and 8 I talked about it when they arrived home because I wanted to be sure that I was the one to tell them. Classmates have a way of spreading misinformation, and I wanted my boys empowered with the gentle truth. Our conversation today went really well and I feel good knowing that they know we can talk about such things.

    • Beth says

      Hi Melissa, I really think that parents know best so do what you think is right given your child’s developmental stage. I know that kids can spread misinformation and fear amongst each other so it might be better to be the one to talk about school safety. If you don’t feel comfortable mentioning the details of the shooting, you can certainly just run through the coloring activity and talk about how to be safe in school and what to do in an emergency. Make sure your kiddo knows your address and telephone number and who the safe adults are to talk to at school.

      • says

        Not sure what you ended up doing with your kindergartener, Melissa. But I found myself in the same situation. Wondering if mine would hear something at school. We did have a little chat about safety and what to do should do in a dangerous situation and encounter a “bad guy.”

        His school and his teachers handled things very well today and had a plan for how to address the issue should any kids have heard or have questions. I think most of them were blissfully unaware of the tragedy, as 6-year-olds should be.

        In the coming weeks and days, when we let our guard down, I feel it may be harder to shield him from what happened. I am prepared for when he hears something on television or reads something on a magazine cover n the grocery store. (That happened after Osama bin Laden’s death when he saw the Newsweek cover with the target over his face.)

        Then, I discussed things pretty openly with him, but age appropriately.

  5. says

    Thank you so much for posting this! My daughter in kindergarten probably won’t know much about this, but my son in Gr. 5 will have lots of questions. They’ll be getting lots of extra kisses tonight. So sad.

  6. says

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with your readers. You certainly did not have to do this, but after the kindness of your heart you did. I do not have kids, but reading this prepared me for situations like this. Thank you!! xx Liz Marie

  7. says

    I’m just so devastated and can’t even imagine what those parents are going through. As soon as I heard it, I wanted to run and get my son from school and give him a huge hug. The TV will be off tonight and all weekend. I know for myself, that my son will not understand what has happened and hopefully will not hear of the situation. Thank you for posting this just in case he does have questions, I know where I can turn. God Bless those affected by this horrific tragedy!

  8. Kimberly says

    We had the news on when my 10yr old stepdaughter walked in door from the bus. She paid no attention to it. When we went to speak to her about what was going on she shrugged and walked off, then asked for her computer password. She was completly untouched and showed not a care in the world about what happend. When her friend called on phone I thought maybe she would mention it in passing after out of the room with us but it has been several minutes now and NOT 1 word about it…….today’s youth are desensitized to the horrors of violence in the world… just watched it first hand in my living room. :O( Had it been her older sisters this house would be non stop tears, the signs of the times..I guess. How very sad for our society.

    • Beth says

      Empathy is often a learned trait and sometimes our kiddos simply don’t want to dwell on anything that doesn’t seem to be impacting them directly. It’s okay if she doesn’t want to talk about it and I applaud you for opening up the lines of communication in case she does.

  9. Sidra says

    Thank you; I’ll be sharing this with my husband since he picks our son up from school.

    A couple of questions I could use help with is how to reply when they ask:

    Why would someone do something so horrible?
    Can this happen at my school?

    Any guidance is appreciated. <3

    • Beth says

      We all wonder why someone would do something so horrible and incomprehensible so it’s a tough question. The best way to answer this question is by saying something like, “Some people are very sick in their brain with a sickness that isn’t contagious. They make horrible choices that hurt themselves and others and it is hard for even adults to understand why some people do horrible things. Do you have any questions about that?” For the, “Can this happen at my school” I would emphasize safety and the rarity of violence in schools. Kids want to know if they are safe. Reassure them that you will do everything in your power to help them feel safe and secure.

  10. says

    Thank you for sharing this — I think with all major news stories, people become consumed and I guess we watch in hopes of making sense of it all {which just isn’t possible in this horrific type of case} but I think keeping the media away from kids is so important. It creates images in their innocent little minds that shouldn’t EVER have to be there. Thank you thank you — I have passed this on via FB and personally.

  11. Nicole says

    Beth, this link was posted on my local news’ FB page. I am glad I clicked the link. Thank you for “brushing off” your hat. This information is great. I feel like I did ok, but seriously couldn’t keep it together very well as I was talking to my kids about it. I too have a kindergartner. My other kids are in 1st, 3rd, and 7th. My 7th grader was pretty choked up about it, because he realized some of the victims were his brothers’ ages. I will have to leave the TV off for a few days, as this is just hitting too hard, too close to home. I hugged my kids extra times, and extra long today, and will continue to do so. Life’s too short, and unfortunately we never know when something such as this will happen. Thank you.

    • Beth says

      It is too short but there is so much good to be had as well. In dark times, it’s so important we keep our eyes on the light. I applaud you for opening up the lines of communication about an impossible topic with your kiddos. Good job momma!

  12. says

    thank you for sharing your wonderful suggestions beth….i have been in tears all afternoon watching the horrific news about these shootings…and praying for my 4 precious grandchildren. i will send your helpful information to my daughter for her to read.

    judy

  13. says

    This is why I love your heart so very much!! Thank you for this post. My youngest is in 7th grade and we listened together to the news on the ride home from school. The first thought in my mind was to just hug her and cry for those suffering. Then I worried if that would scare her so I didn’t. Thank you for sharing so much needed info on this heart breaking subject. I will let her take the lead and answer her questions. It just hurts. Bad. I’m trying to find my own answers to the same tough questions. Answers Im sure we will never know. What I do know is that we can pray together as a blog community and that, my friend, is powerful. Thank you Beth for sharing your wisdom and your heart. love you

    • Beth says

      Thanks sweet friend. Hugs to you as you talk with your kiddo and as we all struggle to parent our littles in this uncertain world. Prayers all around.

  14. Cathy says

    Wish I would have read this BEFORE I picked up my 12 yr old daughter from school. I cried as I hugged her in the car, and blurted out what happened today. Total FAIL. Ugg, I am keeping the news off though. In the future I will try to remember to stay calm on the out side even when I’m heartbroken on the inside. Thanks for the advice.

    • Beth says

      Don’t be hard too hard on yourself. Sometimes in our unguarded moments we teach powerful lessons to our kiddos about empathy, love, and compassion that pervade them much more than any rehearsed speech ever could. Keep the lines of communication with her open this weekend and let her know that even adults get really overwhelmed sometimes but that you love her so much and want to talk about ways to stay safe.

  15. says

    Today is a day where I am even more grateful that we homeschool. We do not watch the news on tv, we check online. I am glad that my 8 year old will have no idea this happened.

    I am so sickened by what happened today. These children were just babies. I am praying for the families, teachers and the whole community affected by this.

  16. says

    Thank you Beth for taking the time to write this post. My own children are too young to hear about or understand this tragedy but I used to be a 2nd grade teacher and I know many parents of elementary kids will be seeking this type of guidance. It is also a great reminder for any adult to be prepared to answer questions and know how to appropriately talk about situations like this with young children. I’ll be posting a link to your post on my personal facebook mom groups.

    My thoughts and prayers are with all of the families of those affected.

  17. Mary Beth Schwarz says

    Oh Beth, thanks so much. Just recently I subscribed to your blog and it seems so fortunate now. I shared your counsel on my Facebook page for my friends with children so they can have some guidance about how to talk to their kids as they hug them so tightly. This is so helpful to me too. There seems to be no way to avoid something like this where the guns are stolen. People need to know there are ways to solve problems other than shooting as a copycat murderer and then committing suicide. Mental problems can have help. Mary Beth

  18. Sarah Beer says

    I don’t have any children yet, but I am thankful to have read your words for future reference should anything like this ever happen in the future (though I pray it doesn’t).
    I join all who have posted and not posted, in America and indeed across the world who have been emotionally affected by this senseless tragedy. I truly feel for all families that have been affected by this travesty.

  19. Cara says

    Beth,

    My children are all grown and flown, but I have grandchildren. So, I shared your post. I appreciate so much your taking the time to help reach out in such a senseless tragedy. God Bless u.

    CaraRose.

  20. says

    Such an important and appreciated post, Beth. Like you, as a parent to a young grade schooler, this tragic story just really hits home. Up until two years ago, we actually lived only one town over. I still have many friends in the area, but thankfully no one that was immediately affected. Thank you for sharing helpful ways as to how best to discuss and/or be there for our kids in such a horrific time.

  21. mari says

    I have found that preparing my kids has kept them from being afraid. I’m not talking about end of the world drills, or anything like that. I’m talking about teaching my kids that there are all kinds of people in this world. Some are wonderful, big hearted people who love and serve and are close to God. Others are just flat out evil and want to hurt people, where still, others are somewhere in between. We have to stay close to God in order to know what we should do when bad things happen. As long as we allow God to stay in our lives, he WILL help us and everything WILL be okay, no matter what happens. That doesn’t mean we won’t get hurt, or even killed, because it could happen. But it does mean that God is always watching over us, and if it is our time to return to him, then that’s what we will do and it will be okay. If we have to leave each other for awhile (if one of us dies), then we know we’ll see each other again in Heaven some day. It helps to know that no matter what, in the end it will all be okay.

    I hate what happened to those children, but I do know that they are with God and that he will comfort and bless their families somehow through this tragedy. I can’t imagine how much they are hurting right now…..

  22. Amanda @ Serenity Now says

    Thanks, Beth! I was wondering how much to say to my first grader, whose school is just across the street from our home. That makes me feel a little better, but still nervous. So much sickness out there, and so hard to shield out kids. Thanks for offering some suggestions!

  23. says

    Thank you for this. It’s so true.

    For the younger kids – preschoolers – I recommend the Sesame Street episode “Friends to the Rescue” which was produced immediately after 9/11.

    At least, it worked for my pre-K daughter.

  24. says

    Thanks so much for the great info, Beth. I have a very sensitive boy and don’t think that I want to share with him what happened. Hoping since he is still so young that it won’t be the talk on the playground. I love the idea of discussing safety and practicing address/phone number. Thanks again for giving me an idea where to start and what to say if he does ask questions.

  25. says

    Beth, thank you so much for posting this. I have cried all afternoon. I only have my one little first grader and I can’t imagine what I would do if something so tragic and horrible happened to her. My heart is breaking for these families and the grief and pain they are going through. I was so happy to read your post. My Jemma hears everything from a mile away so we haven’t spoken about it, but I know kids will at school. I am still debating over to broach safety and things or wait. If we do discuss it with her it will totally be from the safety aspect and empowering her. Thank you. :-)

  26. Leasa says

    Beth this was a great post. I have 3 boys 13, 11, and 7. Two of the boys knew about when we picked them up from school but didn’t say anything about it until their little brother wasn’t around. I am glad they waited to say something because my second grader would be very upset to hear this especially since he already doesn’t like school. My husband and I are children’s pastors at our church and I’m sure we will have lots of questions to answer. Thanks again for the great post.

  27. says

    Hi Beth!
    First, let me say how thankful I am that you took the time to explain this in detail. Last night, I tossed and turned wondering what to do about my 9 year old. She is currently unaware, as we have not discussed it or watched any news programs. I purposely tried to shelter my daughters before I had a chance to research some strategies (in explaining). While my 4 year old is blissfully unaware, the 9 year old is very tender hearted and I KNOW she’ll end up hearing something at school (because they always do). This is the child that weeps over the animal shelter commercials, so I’m worried this will have a huge effect. You’re suggestions are a God-send, and I’m going to use some of these “tactics” in talking with her, as I don’t want her to become scared if she hears it from somewhere else. Thanks for sharing. We’re joining in prayer as well, for God’s healing and restoration upon those people. Hope your day is blessed!

  28. says

    Great post Beth! Thanks for sharing your tips! I talked to my kiddos last night before I read your post. I stayed very calm but couldn’t help the tears that came when I talked about how we need to pray for all the mommies and daddies that won’t get to see their babies again. I plan to talk with them again on Sunday because I’m sure they’ll be hearing things at school on Monday and I want them to know the truth and be able to come to me with any questions.

  29. Eileen Harryvan says

    Beth, thank you for writing this post and a mom and experienced professional. I did not learn of this until a complete stranger approached me while walking the dog. He was a young 20’s and I supposed he needed someone to talk to about it. I was floored and frankly thought he must have been overstating the facts but sadly he hadn’t.
    I no longer have a small one, or grandkids yet but I vividly remember sitting outside our son’s elementary school for a LONG time, wondering if I should let him finish the day not knowing what happened on Sept 11th – unaware that his teacher had turned on a TV and they were all watching it unfold live. I wish she had used a little more discretion.
    Your advice is sound, and timely. Thanks again.

  30. Jessica says

    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and experience on this subject. My heart aches for the families and the members of this community. Thank you also for pointing out how graphic the news can be to our little ones. Most of our news is delivered in the most uncompassionate way. Thier words are harsh, meant to grab the viewers attention. It is much too graphic for out little ones to understand and comprehend.

  31. says

    What has the world come to when this actually needs to be a topic that you should discuss with young children. One of the teachers who lost her life was the same age as one of my older daughters and I have grandchildren the same age as many of the poor babies who lost their lives yesterday. Just thinking about it makes me sick. I can’t even begin to imagine what the surviving children and staff are feeling. It’s just all so sad.

  32. says

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Found through Shannon at Fox Hollow Cottage on FB. Going to share on my FB now. I have three boys – this is great information to try and help understand what they might be feeling and to have the discussion with them as needed. Many thanks, Claire

  33. says

    I did not know that about you. Thanks so much for sharing, these are awesome. It’s just sad that there is a need for them. My heart is breaking for the families of all those precious lives lost, children and adults.

    My children are grown, but I work with lots of children in our church, and I imagine that some of the children might say something. I want to be very careful in what I say, because I don’t know what their parents have shared and don’t want to say something their parents wouldn’t want me to say.

    So this helps give me some ideas about what I could say. My children were young during 911, and I really had no idea what to say to them then, but I did the best I could. I remember we went to a baseball game just a couple of days after and my kids were a bit concerned about going. As you said, they just wanted to feel safe. You know what? So did I.

  34. Debbie Cody says

    Beth….thank you for this wonderful post. I was wondering how to approach this subject with my children who are in 4th and 2nd grade.

  35. Heather says

    Thank you for posting this. I have a six year old son in Kindergarten and our community has been plagued with nine bomb threats to our High School and two Jr. High schools in the last week. There were threats of bombs and shootings. The school district ended up closing schools for three days this past week in order to manage the situations. My son had so many questions and doesn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to be at school. And then we wake up Friday morning with the news of CT. It has really put a dark cloud over my own town as well. Thank you for the advice. I feel a little more prepared to talk to my son now.

  36. says

    Beth, I think your advice is very sensible, sympathetic and helpful but what saddens me is that it is necessary give advice on this topic with the understanding that it is something that happens with frequency and regularity, that it is just another skill we are parents need to learn, along with telling them about the birds and the bees, God etc. What a sad and sorry world we live in that this isn’t just a one off horrific tragedy, but something that is becoming so recurrent that is surely begs the questions “What the hell is the government going to do to stop this?”

  37. Aurora says

    Thank you so much for this post! I have been looking at familiar parenting sites for help since I have a feeling my little girl will come home from school tomorrow with questions, and they are all silent. I have purposefully left the TV off this weekend, and we’ve been focusing on time together. I kinda have a feeling that she’ll hear about it tomorrow from someone at school though, and I was hoping to find help on how to discuss it with her, so thank you!

  38. says

    I have a second grader. We live only two towns over. We have prayed and wept privately while remaining strong for our child. We had no choice but to tell as kids from her dance school attend Sandy Hook. We are blessed not to have known anyone directly. Your pointers are excellent. We did tell our daughter what I call the Readers Digest version – sanitized and short. And we promised to be there for any questions she might have. I never imagined I would ever have to see a day like last Friday – such a tragedy – my heart and prayers go out to the families, teachers, friends, neighbors, first responders… Blessings to you as well, Beth.

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