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How to talk to kids about school violence

By Taylor Blatchford, The Seattle Times
Published: June 15, 2024, 5:17am

Tragically, part of parenting in the U.S. means preparing to talk with kids about gun violence affecting your community or school.

In the wake of Thursday’s shooting that killed a 17-year-old Garfield High School student, The Seattle Times spoke with mental health professionals about the best way for parents to broach these topics with children of all ages. Here’s what they recommended.

How to start conversations

Giving children space to express their feelings, verbally or through play, is an important first step for parents.

“Don’t try to tell them how they should feel, but allow them to express concerns or fears or emotions they may be having over a certain incident,” said Emilie Ney, a school psychologist who works for the National Association of School Psychologists.

Parents should respond by validating emotions, letting kids know it’s OK to feel that way, Ney said. They can reaffirm that the adults in the school and community are doing everything they can to keep them safe.

“If there’s lots of community violence in your area, don’t say, ‘This will never happen to you,’ but tell them it’s very rare,” Ney said. “You’re taking the steps you can to make them safe.”

The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement recommends that parents bring up a shooting or traumatic event even if children don’t seem to want to talk about it. Don’t force them to talk with you, but leave the door open for later discussion.

Make it age-appropriate

Conversations with children, and the amount of detail parents should provide, will vary based on their age.

For children in early elementary school, keep the information simple and avoid too much unnecessary detail. Reassure them that they and their loved ones are safe and protected.

Older children in upper elementary and early middle school can process more factual information, but avoid overexposure to news. They may need help separating fantasy from reality and staying grounded.

Teens in upper middle school or high school “may have questions you’re not able to answer,” but that’s OK, Ney said. Parents can talk with them about safety procedures their school is using and other steps they can take to increase the likelihood of their safety.

Experiencing trauma can leave children and teens with a sense of guilt and responsibility, said Sarah Shapiro, a Seattle-based licensed clinical social worker who works with teens. Internal voices might say this event happened because I wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t paying attention.

If parents have a kid who’s inclined toward art, advocacy or activism, they should encourage those avenues for processing and community, she said.

“Making art, building community, advocating and expressing yourself can put you in situations where that belief is defied,” Shapiro said. “It brings sunlight and oxygen to something that really thrives on secrecy and shame and loneliness.”

Watch for changes in behavior

It’s OK if a child needs a day off school, but returning to a normal routine will help in the long run, Ney said. Sleep, exercise, school and time with their peers are all important for physical and mental health.

“With summer upon us, it may actually help some of the youth to have a break. By fall, they might be feeling more recovered from this,” said Janet Brodsky, a trauma therapist in Olympia.

Longer-term changes can be a clue that children are struggling to adapt and return to normal. Parents should pay particular attention to children “closer to the epicenter,” who may have witnessed a shooting or been directly affected, Brodsky said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents watch for sleep problems and physical complaints. Changes in behavior — clinging to parents, using substances or self-isolation — can also be clues. If these symptoms persist, it might be time to talk with a professional.

Take care of yourself, too

Parents should make time to process traumatic events with their support systems, away from their child.

“It’s important for parents to remember that they’re going to get emotionally dysregulated because it’s horrifying,” Shapiro said.

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