In the wake of yet another school shooting, parents are faced with the agonizing question: what do we tell our children?
It’s even harder when we ourselves are processing our own anger, grief, and confusion. We may be struggling with what experts call Secondary Traumatic Stress: heightened stress, irritability, and sadness as a result of hearing about the firsthand trauma experiences of others, including through news and social media.
If you’re unsure of how to speak to your children about the tragedy, you’re not alone. But know that you don’t need to have all the answers to make a difference in your child’s life right now.
“This is hard,” as Erica Pandey writes in Axios. “Check in with the kids, parents, teachers and school workers in your life — and with yourself. It’s not about having the perfect thing to say, psychologists tell us. It’s about showing up.”
This guide includes Microsteps you can take as a parent to take care of yourself, and also to help your children feel safer, less fearful, and more appropriately informed about the tragedy.
We want to support our children in times of tragedy, but at the same time, we want to avoid introducing new information that adds to their stress or fear. How do we find the balance?
We can start by listening. Make space for them to raise their questions, concerns, and feelings. Then, you can make an informed judgment about if and how to start the conversation. These Microsteps will help you check in, listen, and start the conversation.
Ask your child what they’re hearing and how they’re feeling about the tragedy.
Before introducing information that might be new or scary to your child, ask questions like “are kids in school talking about the shooting? How do you feel about it?” This will help you get a sense of what they’ve heard already — including any misinformation you can correct.
Check in with your child each day.
Frequent, regular communication — as opposed to a one-time Big Talk — will establish you as a source of trust and authority at a potentially confusing time.
Affirm your child’s feelings. Instead of telling them how to feel, tell them what they feel is OK.
Anger, fear, sadness — these emotions are normal amid uncertainty and should be honored rather than pushed away. If your child is upset, you can say, “That’s OK that you feel that way. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.”
Watch for any non-verbal signs of stress.
If your child remains irritable, has stomach aches, or issues sleeping or eating, they may be hiding their stress levels. Gently ask them how they’re feeling, and give them an opportunity to talk through their fears and emotions.
Take a moment to recharge and reset before talking to your child.
Don’t speak to your child about the shooting while you’re stressed, panicked, or still processing the latest news report. Kids have a tendency to absorb and reflect the emotions of their parents, so take a minute to breathe and think through the message you want to communicate.
When talking with your child, repeat their questions back to them and ask what they think.
Events like these can be hard for children to process, and they may have many fears. When you prompt them to answer their own questions, you’ll gain insight into their true fears and concerns without giving them too much information.
When explaining the shooting to your kids, break the situation down in the simplest possible way.
It can be difficult to know how much or how little information to share with your kids. Before discussing the shooting, think about how you can cut out unnecessary information and keep your explanation as short as possible.
If you see signs that your child isn’t listening, don’t force the conversation.
After talking about topics like these, kids can experience information overload. When that happens, don’t force the conversation to continue. Tell them that you’re here to talk about it with them any time.
Acknowledge the sadness or fear your kids may be feeling.
Kids may become sad or fearful when they watch the news or see images of victims. Acknowledge what they’re feeling, remind them that they are safe, and praise them for their caring and empathy.
Each day, reassure your child that they are safe.
Kids feel better when they know a situation is being handled. Let them know they are not in danger and that adults are in control of the situation.
Check in with a fellow parent.
Call or text a friend you trust to ask how they’re managing the stress of parenthood at this time and exchange tips. Not only does connecting raise our spirits, it also supports immune function and helps us manage anxiety.
TV and online media can be overwhelming in times like these. You may feel a responsibility to stay informed on the latest news, but following every update can be draining and devastating, leading you into a deeper sense of hopelessness. Staying glued to your devices late into the night can also take a toll on your sleep, making it harder for you to be the best parent and role model you can be. These Microsteps will help you and your children recharge by prioritizing your well-being and setting boundaries with technology.
Keep up your normal routines.
If you have morning, bedtime, or after school routines with your kids, stick to them. These will reassure your kids that everything is OK and create a sense of normalcy, even in times of stress.
Spend some extra time decompressing with your child before bed.
Stress can directly affect our sleep, but sleep is essential in times of increased anxiety and fear. Remind your child that they’re safe before bed, talk about things you’re grateful for, or listen to some calming music to set the scene for sleep.
Create a calming nighttime ritual.
Research shows that having consistent bedtime routines — which can include taking a warm bath, reading together, or other forms of quiet bonding — can help children get better sleep.
If you or your child are feeling stressed about the shooting, take a minute to breathe deeply.
Pausing to breathe reduces stress and encourages resilience in the face of uncertainty. And neuroscience studies have shown we can course-correct from stress in as little as 60 seconds.
Each day, practice a calming exercise with your kids — before they need it.
Get out in front of stress and help kids “reset” with a routine, like going outside, reading a book, or sitting on your lap. If it helps, set regular reminders for yourself throughout the day.
Set a news cut-off time at the end of the day for your child.
We can’t control the news itself, but as parents we can control the technology that exposes our kids to potentially upsetting news. Setting healthy limits to our media consumption helps both our children and ourselves get a better night’s sleep and put stressful news in perspective.
If you have young children, cut out news consumption altogether.
The news or social media can show disturbing imagery of the shooting, and seeing this can be traumatic for younger children. In some cases, as in 9/11, young children may even believe that the news coverage is showing new attacks each time. Limit their news consumption and be conscious of the media available to them.
If you have teens or older kids, take the opportunity to set (or re-set) boundaries with your child’s technology.
If your child has access to a phone or tablet, review the parental controls. Unsupervised exposure to news and media during a crisis can lead to stress and fear.
Model a de-stressing technique in front of your children.
It’s healthy for them to see us self-regulate. If you’re feeling stressed, take a break to breathe deeply, stretch, or try another in-the-moment technique that helps you course correct from stress and that your child can see you practicing.
Carve out a daily movement break for your children.
Movement and walking — outdoors especially, if possible for you — is great for boosting their mental health and lowering stress. Even a few minutes of running, jumping or stretching will make a difference.
Take a walk together.
Even a three-minute walk can boost our kids’ mood and decrease stress. And especially for older kids and teens, walking side by side (without any “awkward” eye contact) can help them feel more comfortable opening up.
When there are no easy answers, one of the most powerful ways we can help our children is by urging them to take some kind of action. Even small steps can help them regain a sense of control and feel less helpless. These Microsteps can help children reduce their stress and fear through giving, volunteering, and connecting to their sense of purpose.
Schedule “do good” time with your children.
Feeling helpless about the shooting can exacerbate stress, so help children assert control by encouraging them to take part in an effort to do something good to help others. Research a cause or organization you can engage with or donate to, and invite your child to be part of the process.
Help your child find one small way to give that draws on their talents.
Encourage your child to think about a skill they have and find a way to share it with someone else. It might not even have anything to do with the tragedy. Maybe it’s helping a sibling with a homework assignment or helping with dinner prep or cleanup. Focusing on what we can do now will push back on any feelings of helplessness and allow your child to have an impact.
If you have teens or older kids, support them in engaging with the news.
Take time to answer their questions in an age-appropriate way — for instance, discussing gun control laws, or reading articles on news sites recommended for children, such as Time for Kids, Scholastic Kids Press, and The Learning Network.
Once a day, take a moment with your kids to reflect on what you are grateful for.
In times of challenge or uncertainty, our brain defaults to focusing on the negative and even catastrophizing. Gratitude helps both parents and children manage stress and boost resilience.
In-the-Moment Stress Relief Techniques For Parents and Children
Use this breathing technique to reduce stress in the mind and body.
Send a relaxation signal to your body and brain.
Calm your racing mind by engaging your senses.
Clench your fists for 10 seconds, unclench and relax for 10 seconds. Focusing on the relaxation in the body will help to calm the mind.
Remind yourself that tough experiences make us stronger by saying one of these positive affirmations.
Create a Calm Box
Include a few items that your child finds calming in a small box that they can bring to school. In moments of overwhelm, they can hold and focus on these items to reduce anxiety.
Write Coping Cards
Write cards with positive affirmations like, “I am strong, even if I am worried.” They can look at these cards to remind themselves that they can overcome stressful situations.
For more strategies and Microsteps for strengthening connections with your children, visit Thriving Kids on the Thrive platform.