APPLETON, Wis. (March 7, 2018) – In response to the increasing number of school and public mass shootings across the U.S., Jillian Schuh, Ph.D., child psychologist with Catalpa Health, provides the following information for parents, teachers and teens.
Talking with Children about School Violence
School violence, and in particular the most recent school shooting, can elicit many emotions. For students who experience it directly, it can be terrifying, traumatic and life-altering. Students who hear about these tragedies may also feel fearful, confused and helpless. Children often have questions about school violence, and the caring adults in their lives might also find themselves questioning how to help children cope with stories and images of shootings that can often be traumatic. In this time of uncertainty, the following suggestions are provided for parents and educators on how to discuss school violence and events in the media:
- Start the conversation. Be willing to talk about school violence with your child. If you are anxious about the topic, chances are your child is as well. Recognize these feelings in yourself and use them as a guide to support both you and your child as you enter the conversation. Opening yourself to talk about school violence gives your child permission to do the same, and makes the topic less threatening. Give reassurance that it is okay to talk about these events, and it is okay to feel sad and scared. Use your own emotional state as a compass for when to check in with your child or when to pause in the conversation. There is no perfect moment to have these conversations. It is more important to approach the topic than waiting for the “right time.” Notice nonverbal cues that your child may want to talk, such as staying close to you as you do a chore, watching you quietly or wanting you to stay longer during their nighttime routine. Nonverbal cues, especially with younger kids, can also be an important indicator that your child may be struggling. You may notice your child is more withdrawn, irritable, restless or have difficulty concentrating.
- Listen. What does your child already know? What have they heard from friends, family and the media? Find out what is being communicated at their school. Ask broad, open-ended questions to start the conversation (e.g., “What have you heard?”), keeping the focus on their responses. Notice when their perceptions may be different from reality, and provide correct information in age-appropriate language. Recognize underlying fears and acknowledge them.
- Encourage questions and answer directly and honestly. Use your child’s questions as a guide. They can often shed light on how much information your child already knows. When giving responses, be mindful of your child’s age. A younger child may only need simple and brief information paired with reassurance of safety. An older child, who knows greater details about the events, may need more acknowledgement and validation of their emotional reactions. Be mindful to avoid offering false hope (e.g., “something like that won’t happen to you”), and instead acknowledge the possibility while emphasizing that these events are very rare. Talk about what is already being done to keep them safe.
- Acknowledge uncertainty. It is okay not to have all the answers, none of us do. Validate your child’s emotional experience, and join with them as you are able. Provide hope as you are able. Responses such as, “I don’t have an answer to that. I’m sad and worried too, but one thing I do know is I’m here to care for you and keep you safe” or “Let’s see if we can figure that out together,” can provide comfort when there is no answer.
- Emphasize safety. It is normal for children to hear about tragedies and become fearful about the possibility of these happening to them. Reassure that you, other adults in their life and their school work every day to keep them safe. Talk about what is already practiced at school to ensure safety.
- Emphasize what they can do. School violence can lead students to feel powerless and helpless. Offer your child a sense of control by discussing what they can do to help ensure the safety of themselves and their peers. This might mean reviewing their school’s safety guidelines and reminding them to communicate safety concerns to school personnel and other trusted adults. Families might review plans for safety should a crisis happen at home. Remind them that they can always tell a trusted adult if someone makes them feel unsafe with their words or behavior. Model opportunities for change and coping; consider with your child possible ways to offer support and condolences to the victims and their families and emphasize moments of kindness within the midst of tragedy (e.g., the bravery of other students, heroic efforts of law enforcement, quick response from medical teams).
- Monitor news and social media exposure. Be mindful of your child’s exposure to images and videos of school shootings. It may not be appropriate for younger children to have any exposure to this media content. With nonstop media coverage, be cautious about what your child may be overhearing even when they appear to be focused on other things, such as schoolwork or play. For school age children and teens that may use social media, be mindful of what your children are viewing and discussing with one another. Photographs and videos circulating on social media can be intense and graphic. Encourage your child to come to you if they view something distressing. Provide information on how these images have the potential to be anxiety provoking, upsetting and even traumatizing. Offer them permission to take a break from social media, and limit your child when necessary.
- Seek support. If you recognize your child continuing to be fearful, sad, irritable or experience reoccurring and distressing thoughts of the event, they may be in need of greater assistance. Every child experiences trauma differently, and those with persisting symptoms may benefit from meeting with a mental health professional or school counselor.
- Keep the conversations going. Children have different ways of responding to tragedy. Some may have many questions from the beginning. Others may be quieter, and it is important to be patient and encourage that they talk more when they are ready. Regardless of the initial response, invite your child to continue to talk about school violence. Let them know they can ask you questions any time and foreshadow that you may be checking in with them too.
Organizations across the nation are teaming together to provide supports to children and caring adults in their life in the aftermath of the recent school shooting. Below are additional resources:
For children and families in need of additional support:
- Catalpa Health (920) 750-7000
- NAMI Fox Valley: National Alliance on Mental Illness (920) 954-1550
Additional resources on talking with children about school violence:
- American Psychological Association
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- National Public Radio
- New York Times
For more information on the services provided by Catalpa Health, please visit www.catalpahealth.org.
Catalpa Health provides mental health services including psychiatric evaluations, neuropsychological evaluations, psychological evaluations and concussion testing to children and teens, as well as mental health therapy to children, teens and families throughout the Fox Valley, Oshkosh and Waupaca. A collaboration of Ascension Wisconsin, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and ThedaCare, Catalpa Health believes in community partnerships and works with other mental health providers to ensure that all children and teens are receiving the right care at the right time, close to home.