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Parents should talk to children about school shootings

When a school shooting occurs, like the Sandy Hook Elementary School or Red Lake shootings, it may make your child feel vulnerable. 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 to the attitudes and emotional responses of those around them. Children figure out the meaning of an event more 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 a college campus, you can also discuss the safety procedures of their specific campus.

Topics for tweens and teens

It is important to talk to your teenager about school violence whether they are at home or attending college. 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:

  • Let your teen know that it's 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 a school shooting by saying it was "cool." We need to emphasize that violence is an unacceptable way to settle issues or solve problems. We need to stress with children and teens that violence does not work.

Keep talking

For all ages, emphasize that the majority of children are safe at school. 

Remember that 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 right away. See My friend died and I didn't get to say goodbye for a list of physical and emotional signs of grief and tips for coping.

Ellie M. McCann, Regional extension educator in family resiliency, and Kathleen Olson, (emeritus program director in partnering for school success).

Revised 2012

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