How to Talk to Your Kids About School Shootings

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School shootings came to the forefront of our attention after the Columbine shooting in 1999. Over the past several years, school shootings have become more frequent and more deadly.

Although many schools have increased security protocols, including hiring armed guards and having police presence on campus, there is no evidence that these measures have increased student safety. In fact, increased police and security presence in schools increases risks for harm and racism against Black students and other students of color rather than improving safety.

Similarly, although students report feeling more prepared for a shooting following drills, there is no evidence that lockdown drills have made students safer when shootings occur.

Most schools regularly conduct lockdown drills during which students simulate hiding from an active shooter. These drills can be scary and stressful for young children as they act out what they would have to do if their lives were in danger.

Children can struggle emotionally to handle the idea that the adults in charge might not be able to keep them safe, and they may have questions or big feelings about these events. Many parents feel confused or nervous about how to talk about these issues with their children.

This article discusses the impact school shootings have on kids' mental health, on parents, and how to broach the subject with your child depending on their age. You'll also find a list of resources for further help and information.

How School Shootings Impact Children's Mental Health

Post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related diagnoses in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition" (DSM-5) are marked by events during which an individual experiences “actual threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.”

By this definition, children who were present during a school shooting have experienced trauma.

The DSM-5 furthermore indicates that traumatic events can occur in one of four ways:

  • Experiencing the event directly (being injured in a school shooting)
  • Witnessing, in person, when the event happened to someone else (seeing others injured or killed in a shooting)
  • Learning that a traumatic event happened to a close family member or friend (hearing that a friend or relative at another school was injured or killed in a school shooting)
  • "Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of such events, such as with first responders"

It's important to note that the criteria listed above specifically exclude learning about traumatic events through television or other media. Historically, secondary or vicarious, trauma has been primarily applied to people who work in the helping professions, but researchers are also studying the impact that indirect exposure to trauma can have.

In one study, nearly 25% of participants reported being significantly affected by media depictions of violence. While more research is needed, the authors of the study suggest that exposure to such violence through social media may pose a risk to mental health.

School Shootings Lead to Collective Trauma

By this definition, the trauma of a school shooting extends not only to the students in the school, but to their families, other loved ones, and the rest of the community.

Almost a quarter of a million children were physically present during a school shooting from 2010-2020, and children living in communities that have experienced a school shooting have higher rates of depression, need for therapy services, and use of antidepressant medication.

These communities have higher rates of youth suicide immediately following the shooting and on the anniversary in subsequent years as well as higher rates of PTSD compared to other communities.

How School Shootings Impact Parent's Mental Health

The increased prevalence of school shootings has also impacted parents' and guardians' mental health. Parents might experience fear for their children’s safety due to the risk that a shooting could occur at their child’s school.

Address Your Feelings Before Speaking to Your Child

Parents need to address their own feelings around a school shooting before bringing this topic up with their children. Seek support from your friends and loved ones, talk through your own feelings, and make sure that you have coping skills and self-regulation in place so that you can be a stable resource for your children.

Parents should also be cognizant of their news and media consumption. It can be tempting to keep scrolling or keep reading after you have taken in necessary information (or “doomscroll”), but this is not healthy or productive. Remember that it is OK to disengage if you are not gaining useful information.

Talking to Your Kids

Bethany Raffery, MS, MHC, shared several important tips for talking to your kid about shootings. This can be a difficult or scary topic because parents and guardians are often not sure what to say.

Of course, each child’s age and developmental level impact what an appropriate conversation looks like, but some things that are generally good to keep in mind include:

  • Start the conversation: Ask your child if they have questions and assess how much they know. It can be tempting to assume that, if your child has not brought up the topic, they do not want or need to discuss it. However, kids take their cues from adults. Your child may be waiting for you to let them know that it is OK to talk about shootings and ask questions. If they do not have questions or don't seem concerned, follow their lead. Let them know you are always there to answer any questions if they ever do.
  • Be honest: If your child asks a question, give them as honest of an answer as possible. If your child realizes you have not been honest with them, they may not feel comfortable coming to you with questions in the future. It is important to keep the information you share age-appropriate to avoid overwhelming your child. Avoid giving them too many details, but answer questions honestly to ensure that trust is maintained.
  • Acknowledge what you don’t know: Even adults do not have all the answers. If you do not know how to answer a question, you can tell your child that you will find out and get back to them, or seek out the answer together from a reputable source.
  • Share your feelings: Parents and other adults can model how to appropriately communicate feelings by sharing their feelings honestly and in a healthy way. Let your child know that you felt afraid, angry, etc, too. This will make space where they also feel safe sharing. It is very important for parents and caregivers to model the expression of feelings while also being in control of emotions to avoid increasing children's stress and fear. The expression of feelings needs to be followed with actions that help children feel safe.
  • Encourage them to share their feelings: Ask your child how they feel about what happened. Let them express that emotion, and do not correct their tone. If they express something factually inaccurate, you can correct misinformation, but validate their feelings and encourage them to share openly with you.
  • Developing a list of resources: If your child is experiencing high anxiety while they are at school, talk about the things they can do to feel safer in their environment. Some children will benefit from learning grounding techniques or belly breathing to practice when feeling anxious, while other kids may benefit from making temporary adjustments to their environment
  • Limit media intake: Bethany says, “Don't keep the news on around children! It’s toxic and traumatizing. It’s adult content. Adults need to protect children from a diet of trauma on repeat.” Make sure your child gets their information from you or another safe adult rather than the news.

Elementary School

According to Raffery, you must let your child’s age guide how you steer conversations about school shootings with your child. Elementary-age children tend to think concretely and literally, so keep this in mind when talking with them.

They also tend to experience their feelings in an intense way, so before starting the conversation, help them get comfortable, and make sure you help them cope with their feelings afterward by doing something fun with them.

Help them create a list of safe adults they can go to when they have a big feeling or when more questions come up as well as coping skills. Raffery recommends focusing on their strengths, including “Who they are now and who they are becoming. … It will help them identify their strengths and build a sense of self-efficacy.”

Middle School

According to Raffery, “Middle schoolers are really looking for a sense of control as they are coming into themselves.”

This means that they are developing their sense of self, but it also puts them at risk for consuming misinformation or to seek control in ways that can be harmful to others, like spreading rumors or lashing out in an effort to protect themselves.

Help them identify safe and healthy ways to explore their identity and feel in control of their environment. Make sure they know what behaviors are OK and not OK without shaming them.

High School

Raffery recommends encouraging teens to use their voices to make changes. “Encourage [them] to write to their elected officials." Raffery acknowledges that doing so can instill a sense of control and give them something specific to do with their feelings in the moment.

High schoolers also likely understand what happened and have learned the details from social media or other internet sources on their own. In this case, the adults supporting them can focus the conversation on the teen’s feelings and emotional needs, with less need to explain what happened.

Resources

If you are looking for more support and resources to help navigate these difficult conversations, the organizations listed below might help:


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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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