How Can I Help My Anxious Child Feel Safe After Mass Tragedies in the News?

Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., offers suggestions and tips for starting the conversation about gun violence with your kids while protecting everyone's mental health.

How to talk to your kids about gun violence
Photo: Parents | Zoe Hansen

-Tired and Triggered

My 10-year-old has heard about the recent school shooting in Texas from friends and through the news, even though my partner and I tried to protect them from it. How do I talk to my 10yo and their younger sister about gun violence as it infiltrates Americans daily lives, without further causing or spiking their anxiety? And what can we do, as a family, to encourage a feeling of safety?

—-Tired and Triggered

Talking about any type of tragedy with our children can bring up discomfort and uncertainty. As parents, we are wired to protect our children from harm, and addressing a topic like school shootings reminds us we can't always promise them this protection. As regrettable as it is that we are raising children in a world where school shootings are a reality, how we talk to them can bring them comfort and a sense of safety they desperately need.

As much as we want to protect our children, though, they can often handle more than we realize. In my years working in palliative care, I followed the steps below to help parents approach conversations about death and dying with children, so these are tried and true tips that can be applied to a range of difficult topics. Depending on how much younger your daughter is, you may want to have separate conversations so you can tailor it better to each child's development and readiness for information.

Key Discussion Steps:

  • Find out what they know first. I suggest starting any tough conversation by asking: "What have you heard?" This gives you a sense of where to even start with a daunting topic. As you discover what they know, ask specifically about what they have been told by others. This helps you focus on accuracy, since the grapevine can famously lead to "fake news."
  • Go slowly. Pace your delivery one fact at a time to allow your child to digest each information bite, and ask questions. This helps ensure you do not overwhelm their ability to handle what you are telling them.
  • Keep it simple. Use child-friendly language. If you use more advanced vocabulary, check in with them, "do you know what that word means?"
  • Observe and listen. Watch for cues that they have had enough (like when they change the subject or run off to play), or even say, "Okay, that's enough of that." Let them know you will answer any questions that come to them after they have thought about what you've discussed.
  • Stay calm. It's completely appropriate to share that you feel sad or upset, but staying calm while talking about it helps convey a sense of safety. Using a neutral tone of voice, good eye contact, and a reassuring touch while talking all communicate to your child that you are present for them, and able to handle whatever reaction they need to express.
  • Focus on evidence of safety. Remind your child that your home is a safe place, and that their school has safety protocols (even better if you know what those are!). You can use data that although it would be best for there to be zero school shootings, the chance of any one school having one is still quite low.

For more details on what to include in discussions with children about school shootings, see this thorough guide from the National Association of School Psychologists.

Permission to Not Discuss

Your child came home asking questions, so you knew you had to take on this tough topic. However, many parents may wonder whether to even bring up a school shooting if their child isn't. Seeing the various "how to talk to your kids about Uvalde" articles may add pressure to us feeling like we should start the conversation. This is where our own anxiety or emotional distress may compel us to do something to relieve that distress, rather than because it's in our child's best interest.

In my family, I took an exploratory approach. The day after the shooting when it could have been discussed at school by kids and teachers, I asked my children at the dinner table, "were there any serious discussions at school today?" They looked at me blankly. Over the week, I checked in a couple more times, and nothing. If they weren't feeling scared and hearing information I wanted to filter, I didn't see a need to raise it.

I have confidence in this approach because my children have historically brought up issues they are hearing about. We have had countless conversations about topics related to safety, from how scary coronavirus is ("is it going to kill us?") to police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement. We aren't sugarcoating reality for them and want them to be aware what's happening in the world, but this doesn't have to mean everything all the time. The foundation has been built - we do our part to communicate openness to talk honestly, and let them take the lead.

The Impact of Other Violence and Trauma

It is important to acknowledge that some families live in high violence neighborhoods where children and parents already exist at high alert. The effects of hearing about school shootings may either spike anxiety due to their own history of trauma, or not register on their radar because they are already processing other threats to safety. Whether it's the chronic trauma of living with community violence or another type of trauma exposure, children experiencing other threats to their safety need more direct and regular check-ins from adults about how they are coping. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides an array of resources for managing all types of trauma in children and families.

The Bottom Line

The unfortunate truth is the world is full of threats. Our children know that more than ever after living through a global pandemic, and some children grow up with a constant feeling of their safety under threat. School shootings add to this sense of threat to basic safety. However, we can be our children's emotional safety. Not only does emotional safety mean they feel loved, important, and valuable, they know we can take on hard parts of life with them and they can express their emotions safely. When we can't promise that every other part of their world is safe, we can still do our part to build this foundation with them, one difficult conversation at a time.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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