In the aftermath of Tuesday’s terrifying elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two teachers, parents can struggle to explain the nation’s collective horror to their own children.
The details of the shooting— an 18-year-old gunman killing children and adults locked inside a fourth-grade classroom at Robb Elementary School — can be overwhelming for an adult to process. And some parents may not want to tell young children about such a violent event.
But, mental health professionals say, it’s important for parents to have a conversation with both young and adolescent children so they can learn what happened from a person they trust, whether a parent, a school guidance counselor or another adult.
Baltimore city and county public schools made counselors available to help students process the tragedy in Texas. City schools also discussed the recent mass shootings around the country Thursday during an annual Peace and Remembrance Day. The remembrance day has been held for the last five years and serves as a time to honor the city students who lost their lives to violence, said city schools spokesman André Riley.
Kyla Liggett-Creel, an associate clinical professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s School of Social Work, and Sharon Hoover, professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health, discussed how to answer questions that children are likely to ask about such shootings, and some methods parents can use to help young people of all ages process their feelings.
They suggest keeping the information basic for young children. Media exposure can contribute to negative feelings and trigger children with post-traumatic stress disorder, so try to limit social media and news consumption and let your child steer the conversation, Hoover and Liggett-Creel said.
“If they want to talk about it, they will. If they don’t want to talk about it, they likely won’t,” Hoover said. “But it’s important just to open the conversation, see what they know, see if you need to provide any extra support for them.”
Below are some potential questions and answers that have been edited for length and clarity:
How do you start the conversation?
Hoover: As a parent or an educator, it’s important that you open the conversation. So don’t be scared to talk about it because it’s very likely, even in our elementary schools and up, that they are aware that something has happened. So it’s OK to ask, ‘What do you know?’ and gently correct any inaccurate information they might have.
Liggett-Creel: You want to think age appropriate. If a 5-year-old says ‘What happened yesterday?’ then you might say ‘Somebody went in a school and hurt a lot of little kids, and that makes everybody really sad, and that’s what you’re hearing about.’ But if it’s a teenager, it’s a different conversation. ‘Yesterday, somebody went into a school with an assault rifle and killed 19 people, and this is really a problem. And this is why we have to do the work around gun control and mental health and healing in the community.’
What to say when they ask, “Am I going to be safe in school?”
Hoover: When something really awful like this happens, it can feel like it is going to happen a lot or in your school. But the reality is it’s very unlikely for this kind of thing to happen and the adults in your life, including your teachers, your school principal, your parents and your family members are doing everything we can to take care of you and to keep you safe.
You can ask your child to share what they would do in a situation where they felt unsafe and who they can reach out to.
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You wouldn’t respond with all the details about what happened. Despite the anxiety that you’re experiencing as a parent, as an adult, you don’t want to convey all of that anxiety to your child.
Liggett-Creel: While there are these horrible things happening we have to pay attention to the helpers and also figure out how we can help. And then turn that conversation into ‘What are you doing to make the world a better place?’ Because there’s no question that there’s a lot of bad happening now. But we have to also focus on what good things are happening and how can we help with the healing process.
“Why did this happen?”
Hoover: It depends on the age of the child but the general consistent message is “We’re not sure exactly why this person chose to do this really awful thing. But we know that sometimes people do really awful, violent things because they’re having personal challenges. They might feel disconnected from their school and their families and their community, but we really don’t know what happened with this particular person.” And then immediately transition to the people in your life who are trying to keep you safe.
We don’t want a say, for example, “He was probably mentally ill.” We don’t know that and then children will internalize the message that people with mental illness are more likely to be violent, and that’s not true.
What are some signs your child is feeling traumatized and how do you help?
Liggett-Creel: Those symptoms include avoidance of like, ”I don’t want to go to school anymore. I don’t want to go to the grocery store,” because they’ve heard these stories. It could be issues with sleep, so now they’re crawling into bed with you. They’re having nightmares. They’re saying “I can’t fall asleep.” And then any changes in like eating, where they may say “I’m just not hungry.” They don’t want to go hang out with friends. Or they might be really clingy and say “I just want to sit here with you. I don’t want to go to my room. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
If that happens, take some time to just be together. A lot of times kids are on the run and families are busy and running around. This is a time where it’s like, “You know what, why don’t we just stay home and cuddle and watch your favorite movie?” and just help them feel safe and secure. Keep to a routine and don’t run all over the place. Ask them what they think you could do to help them when those big feelings come up.
Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.