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Ask the Expert: How to talk to kids about mass shootings

Apr 10, 2023

A shooting at a downtown Louisville bank that left at least five people dead April 10 is one of 145 mass shootings in the United States so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. There is no official definition of a mass shooting in the U.S., but the nonprofit organization categorizes them as an incident where four or more people are shot or killed.

Beth Trammell is a licensed psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Indiana University East. Photo courtesy of Be... Beth Trammell is a licensed psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Indiana University East. Photo courtesy of Beth Trammell

The frequency of the incidents, coupled with access to social media, means most children know about mass shootings even if their parents don’t address the topic. Beth Trammell, a licensed psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Indiana University East, said it’s important for parents to initiate conversations about difficult topics like school shootings.

“The goal is for us to be an askable parent. Whether it’s school shootings, bullying, sex, fill in the blank, we want to be encouraging our kids to ask questions,” Trammell said. “So all of these tiny moments when we ask what they’re curious about, we are opening the door for them to realize I’m going to be here when you do have questions about whatever you want to talk about, and I’m not going to freak out.”

Trammell provides several tips for discussing shootings with children in a way that will help them feel safe and supported.

Question: When a mass shooting occurs, how should parents broach the topic with their kids?

Answer: The first thing to remember is that it’s important to be emotionally regulated yourself before you go into the conversation. If you’re feeling very anxious or scared, it’s not the time to have the conversation.

Once you’re emotionally regulated, you should open the door to conversation using curiosity-based questions. You could start with saying, “I’m wondering if you’ve heard anything about what happened in a school in Tennessee?” Continue the conversation using those curiosity-based questions and try to avoid asking your child if they’re worried or scared; that might lead them to believe they should be.

Q: Is there an age-appropriate way for parents to talk about shootings with children?

A: It’s more about the emotional maturity of your child than their age. I like to use the acronym PRESS to help guide these conversations.

  • Prepare what you want to say: What do you want your kid to know about a recent shooting, or shootings in general? I often encourage a theme around safety — that the school is doing things to keep the child safe and asking what you can do to help make them more safe.
  • Reflect: The goal is to reflect on what your child needs to know. If you have a kid who is anxious and more information will heighten their anxiety, give them just enough to appease their curiosity. If you have a kiddo who needs to know certain details to make them feel safer, then maybe together you look up a website that is reputable and learn more about the shooting together.
  • Explore: Explore what they already know. What have you heard, what do you know?
  • Share: Tell your child what you want them to know.
  • Safety: Reassure your child that you and their school are doing things to keep them safe.

Q: Should parents be mindful of how they react around their children when mass shootings occur?

A: Kids will mimic our reactions. That doesn’t mean we pretend it doesn’t affect us, but we do need to recognize what our child needs.

I have four kids, and some of them need me to “feel” alongside them. I will share with them when I’m sad and feeling a bit hopeless. My other kids just need me to hear their concerns, and sometimes I can label it with emotion that they can recognize.

Our kids are always watching and listening. If they’ve heard the headlines, they know you’re talking about it, and their ears are perking up to hear what you’re going to say. Don’t hide, and simply be intentional.

Q: Should parents be regulating their kids’ media consumption differently following shootings?

A: I tend to encourage less is more here. If your kid is one who wants more information, I’d try to give them info that’s threaded through the lens of safety. Giving them lots of details is unlikely to make them feel safer. We have to be wise in limiting consumption and redirecting our kids elsewhere.

You should also think about timing. I discourage people from being on social media at night because it could lead to difficulty sleeping. You should have a cutoff point, both in the evening and in the morning, so that if your child does come across information or news they find upsetting, you are available for them when they have questions. Sending them to bed or school without that opportunity could contribute to anxiety.

Q: How can parents help children who are upset or scared?

A: What you don’t do is say, “You’re OK; don’t worry, don’t cry.” You don’t want to shut their feelings down. Instead, what we want to do is pull it out of them.

Our kids want us to just hear them out. After they get it out, they tend to be more emotionally regulated, so their logical brain is turned back on, and that’s when we can have the logical conversation of what we can do to make them feel safe.

Some things you can consider: Can we take some deep breaths? Do you want me to walk you into the building today? Often you’ll find they just want to talk. You may just sit with them and validate their feelings. And then you can reassure them that they’re safe.

Q: What additional resources are there for parents who think their child is really struggling?

A: Finding a therapist right now is tricky because we don’t have enough to meet the need, but getting on the waitlist for a good child-oriented therapist is important. In the meantime, if your school has a school counselor, you could ask them to do some check-ins at school.

What I find with most kids is that they need to know they have a safety net. They may not even use it, but they know it’s there if they need it.

If you notice major changes in your child — behavioral challenges, grades dropping — that’s when I tend to say reach out to your pediatrician, therapist or school counselor.

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