Talking with Children About School Violence, Advice from School Psychology Professors

A father sits with his son, the child looks concerned

A father talks with his son (Image, pexels: August De Richelieu)

In the wake of a school shooting, or other violent events, children look to the adults in their lives for support, guidance, understanding, and safety. The questions they bring forward, and the resulting conversations, often come as parents, teachers, and other influential adults are also processing their own grief, fear, and sadness. School Psychology faculty members Drs. Barbara Miller and Jason Kaplan offered the following suggestions to aid these difficult conversations.

Kaplan recommends these resources from The Child Mind Institute, “Helping Children Cope with Frightening News,” and “How to Talk to Kids About School Shootings.” Each article provides advice for parents looking to assist children with processing grief and fear in a healthy way, the latter also offers tips for parents trying to manage their own anxiety. The JED Foundation also offers Tips for Coping with Traumatic Events. These resources, while incredibly helpful, are not necessarily “one size fits all.”

“Every parent knows their child best, so there is no right or wrong answer,” said Kaplan. “Parents often tell me they are afraid to bring up current events because they will adversely affect their children.  However, sometimes not talking about an issue can make the child more scared.” 

So, should a parent or caregiver bring up the conversation? And, if so, how might they know when, or if, it is an appropriate time to do so?

Miller suggests watching for “signs of curiosity” or changes in behavior or affect. “With young children particularly, I would not initiate the conversation,” she said, adding, “By Middle School [however], it is fine to initiate the conversation because there are opportunities to discuss many topics related to school violence, such as, what to do if one of your friends is being bullied or has changed dramatically recently; what to do if you notice rant messages online, etc.”

When overhearing a child express fear, like whether school is a safe place, or hearing them discuss events, Kaplan said, then a parent should absolutely engage in a conversation with their child.

If a child initiates a conversation directly, both experts suggest that it is important for parents to keep their own emotions in check, even in the face of hard questions, and to try to remember that children often ask questions as a way of expressing their feelings.

If a child asks, for example, ‘Am I going to die at school,’ a parent may instinctively go to odds or statistics, or provide an answer like “no,” to redirect the child. Kaplan suggests, instead, one can “respond by saying, ‘thank you for asking that question,’ or ‘that’s a great question; what made you think of that’ or, ‘can you help me better understand what you are asking.’”

Answering this way, he said, serves two purposes. “It gives you, as the parent, time to breathe and collect your thoughts, but it also gives the child a chance to express additional thoughts and feelings and, sometimes, by the time the child gets done answering your question, there is not much you need to say,” he said. 

Kaplan stresses that understanding exactly what the child is asking is essential so that you provide the information the child is seeking.  “When kids ask difficult questions, it is important to answer with short concrete responses and not use ambiguous language,” he said.   

Miller concurs and, if parents don’t know how to answer something, they should be comfortable with expressing that, too.

“Parents should be armed with facts as much as possible, yet also feel okay with saying ‘I don't know’; ‘I am not sure’; ‘the adults are working on figuring out that problem,’" Miller said, also advising. “[Parents] should proceed slowly in responding and satisfy the child's curiosity or feeling, but not over-process.”

For parents who are, themselves, struggling with anxiety, Kaplan stresses that it’s important to seek help for oneself. “It is important for parents to be in touch with their own feelings and anxiety,” he said. “Your children will feed off your reactions and anxiety.”

When initiating a conversation, whether that’s because a child has expressed something or because a parent wants to discuss the topic, Kaplan suggests keeping questions broad and general. Rather than “yes or no” questions, using open-ended questions, like “what questions or thoughts do you have about recent violence in the schools,” allows a parent to gauge how much it is even on their child’s mind, he said, and added, “[Children] will usually tell you if they don’t have anything to say.”

To foster resilience and promote a feeling of safety, psychologically, it is important for parents to help children feel safe, seen, and heard, and offer some sense of control and predictability in their environment.

Kaplan said keeping things as routine as possible in uncertain times, including ensuring the child’s caregivers will drop them off and pick them up at the usual time and speaking to them about safety measures in place at school, is an important step. So is understanding what conversations are happening in the child’s school environment.

“Be in communication with school and make sure your messages are consistent with the message discussed in school,” he said. “If parents have questions, they should contact the school psychologist, a school counselor, or building principal.”

Miller said she believes psychological safety is the byproduct of human relationships that help a person feel “safe, seen, soothed, [and] secure,” terminology she attributed to Dan Siegel, M.D.

These terms speak to an emotional climate where, she said, “children feel safe to be who they are, validated for who they are and how they feel, comforted, taught ways to self-regulate when they are upset, and [where they can] feel like they can predictably count on these helpful reactions from adults.”

She added, “While we cannot (yet) guarantee safety from intruders, we can provide it psychologically at home and in schools. From this comes resilience and a better capacity to manage uncertainty.”


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