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How to Talk to Your Kids About Scary Things Like the School Shooting

It’s not always easy to find the right words when our kids come to us with questions about the scary things happening in our world. Sometimes the struggle is knowing that many of these things are out of our control. But, as parents, there are ways we can comfort our children and help guide them as they process current events.

The most recent story that has gutted every parent was the murder of 19 children and their 2 teachers at an Uvalde, Texas elementary school. How in the world do we explain this to our kids? In my conversations with other parents, I discovered that many of us, myself included, haven’t told our kids about it yet. But, should we?

Related: How you can get involved with Moms Demand Action in Tampa Bay 

I’ve personally managed to shield my own kids from the news because my oldest who just wrapped up third grade happened to be out sick from school around the time the shooting happened and I’ve kept the news off when he’s close by. The kids who were killed in their classrooms are his age. How and where do I even begin?

I know that I can’t protect him from the horror of what happened forever. It is going to come up in conversation. To help guide us as parents, we’re turning to Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., ABPP-CN, the co-director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, to learn more about how to talk to our kids about scary things.

Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., ABPP-CN,
Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., ABPP-CN,
Co-Director, Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital

If our kids haven’t yet learned about the tragic shooting in Uvalde, Texas—should we tell them or wait for them to bring it up?

Dr. Katzenstein: It depends on the age and developmental level. For our younger kids, it is hard to understand the gravity of the event.

For those under the age of 7, a great option is to reinforce the safety plans that their school has in place. If they ask about the shooting, speak in clear terms at their level, such as “kids were hurt at school” and remind them that adults are doing everything they can to protect them.

For kids 8 years old to middle school age, again, meet them at their level and explain that many kids were killed by a shooter at school, and again, remind them that adults are here to keep them safe and reinforce school safety plans. Ask them about how they are feeling and let them express any concerns without prompts.

For our high school aged kids, this is a great opportunity to discuss legislation, varying opinions, and together, you can start to engage in volunteer or activist work of your family’s choice.

Kids understand things at different ages and stages. What’s the best way to talk about these scary things in the news with our kids from preschoolers to high schoolers?

Dr. Katzenstein: Talking about scary things in the news varies by age and developmental level. In addition, children before 7-8 years of age often will not yet make the connection between the news and reality, so it is best at those ages to talk about scary situations more broadly, and what safety plans are. See above for more related to this.

The school shooting hits home for many kids because the victims were their age and in a classroom where they are supposed to feel the most safe. How do we reassure our kids? Especially as they head back to school and go through the active shooter practice drills?

Dr. Katzenstein: A great place to start is to review family safety plans and school safety plans. Practice coping skills together, especially when we feel our anxiety on the rise, including deep breathing, meditation and muscle relaxation. Remind them that adults at school and at home are doing everything they can to keep them safe.

If a child is especially anxious about the news, how do we best comfort them when we know most of what is going on in the outside world is out of our control? We don’t want to lie to them, right?

Dr. Katzenstein: Correct, we always want to be as transparent as possible in our communication, and presenting language at an age-appropriate level. However, keep in mind, too much news isn’t healthy for anyone, including ourselves, so limit news if it is distressful, and make sure to get news from trusted news sources.

The pandemic has been especially hard on many children and teens–what are you seeing at this stage in the pandemic and what signs should parents be on the lookout for so they know when to contact help.

Dr. Katzenstein: We are seeing some pandemic stress subside, but the research suggests that adults are experiencing more burnout and stress is coming from new directions.

For our kids, watching for changes in mood, increased anxiety including separation anxiety, changes in appetite, changes in sleep and changes in preferred activities are signs to be on the lookout for.

For our younger kids, separation anxiety, more temper tantrums, and changes in toileting, along with changes in sleep/appetite we should be watching out for. For our older kids, look for irritability and changes in mood and preferred activities, as well as hygiene behaviors.

For all, listen to what they are telling us and make sure our kids have a safe place to share their feelings and emotions.

What should a parent do if they are concerned about their child’s mental health?

Dr. Katzenstein: Talking with your pediatrician or a trusted psychologist/counselor/therapist is a great place to start. I wish everyone established with a therapist when they find their pediatrician, but since that isn’t what happens right now, find some trusted providers and bring your concerns. It is great to establish a relationship with people now so that when concerns arise, you know who you have a relationship with and who to go to.

In the event of something like a hurricanes (since it’s hurricane season), how do we comfort our kids when again–Mother Nature is out of our control?

Dr. Katzenstein: The most important thing we can do is have a family safety plan. Make sure we have hurricane supplies on hand, and that the family is well versed in the family safety plan. Although we can’t predict the future, and Mother Nature is out of our control, our kids need to have reassurance that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe.

Anything else you want to add?

Dr. Katzenstein: Healthy parents are important for healthy kids. If we personally are feeling a lot of anxiety or experience changes in our own mood, we as parents may need support as well! Taking care of ourselves is very important, and sleep and social work are two of the biggest protective factors we can do to take care of ourselves. But, receiving our own care from a psychologist, therapist or counselor, models for our kids the importance of taking care of our mental health and seeking out care when we need it.


More interviews with Dr. Katzenstein:

Laura Byrne
Laura Byrne
Laura Byrne is an award-winning former television news journalist who spent 15+ years in newsrooms across the state of Florida including Sarasota, Tallahassee, Fort Myers and right here in Tampa Bay where she still freelances on occasion. She covered the political beat, crime beat and every day breaking news during her time in Florida newsrooms, but is now focused on sharing positive news stories and events with families in Tampa Bay. She is a proud mommy of two little boys who keep her on her toes and laughing every day. Her goal is to inspire families just like yours to get out and play and experience all that Tampa Bay and our great state of Florida have to offer! She encourages you to share your stories and upcoming events so we can spread the good news.

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