How to speak to children about school shootings

Professors, psychologists, teachers and parents share advice in the wake of the Uvalde tragedy

Football teammates of Tess Mata, who died in the Uvalde shooting in the US, with their mothers. AFP
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It is a tragic tale too often told in the past 25 years: another American school shooting.

On Tuesday, the world watched in horror after 19 primary schoolchildren and two teachers were murdered by a teenage gunman at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

With the outpouring of grief, fury and questioning of America’s Second Amendment splashed all over news feeds, the exposure to children has become greater than ever in our social media-dominated world.

According to Texan teacher Michelle Guzman, it’s only natural that children would become increasingly anxious or scared about going to school. Therefore, the way parents approach the matter will have a significant impact.

“Having these types of talks can be hard, but they are necessary,” says Guzman, a track and psychology teacher.

“The type of conversation you have will depend on the student’s age and awareness, but making sure you are listening to their concerns or questions without interruption is crucial. Explain to them it is good to be proactive and safe.”

A makeshift memorial to victims of the May 24 Robb Elementary School school shooting outside Uvalde County Courthouse. Photo: AFP

Share enough, but not too much

Dr Sufna John, psychologist and associate professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, recommends broaching the Texas shootings proactively with children.

“Don’t wait for them to come to you,” she says. “Pick a good time and start by asking children what they know about what happened so you can clear up any misunderstandings.

“Emphasise that these are rare events, and [outline] what parameters exist at their own home and school to help keep them safe, and reassure them they can ask questions or talk to you about this at any time.”

In America, children as young as 4 participate in practice drills to prepare them for open fire in the classroom, in what Guzman calls a “scary reality”. Even in the UAE, where gun culture is non-existent, fear of the unknown can also come into play.

“Avoid too much news via TV and social media because it can heighten their anxiety and fears,” says Guzman, who is the founder of international teaching company Believe Mentoring and Tutoring.

It is normal for parents to feel anxiety and fear following such a traumatic event, and they may need some time to reflect on how this event made them feel
Dr Elena Andrioti

“Monitor adult conversations because children may overhear and try to ‘fill in the gaps’, which can increase anxiety and fears.”

Overarchingly, experts agree that the amount of information shared with children is largely dependent on what they have been exposed to already.

Talking to various age groups

Dr Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology, neuropsychology and social work at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in Florida, says our children’s ages and developmental level tell us how much they can manage.

The mother-of-one broached the shootings with her five-year-old son immediately to reassure him that he and his classmates were safe.

A woman lights a candle at the memorial in Uvalde, Texas. Photo: AFP

“Kids under 7 typically don’t connect news with reality, and he didn’t have any knowledge of this going on. So instead we spoke about his school and the practice drills they have in case of emergencies,” she says.

“With younger children, you need to look out for developmental changes like disrupted sleep, a change in appetite or going to the toilet — so I’ll be watching my son very closely.

“With older kids, you can have an open conversation, listening to them, remaining calm, hearing them out and reassuring them of ways they are being protected.”

Dr David Schonfeld, director of the National Centre for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, advises being honest without going into too much detail.

“A preschool-age child could be told that a man shot and killed a number of children in a primary school in Texas. Let them know that the person who shot these people is no longer alive and therefore cannot hurt others. It isn’t necessary to provide many details; avoid graphic images and descriptions.”

Schonfeld also recommends explaining to children who don’t live in the US where Texas is located, “emphasising it is far from the UAE”, he says.

Self-care and monitoring is crucial

Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Illinois, says parents should be wary of brushing concerns under the rug. “Many parents are quick to reassure children about their personal safety or may minimise the situation because they don't want their children to be anxious,” he says.

“However, it can be even more important during these times to provide children with an open invitation to share their thoughts and feelings.

“Parents can closely pay attention, help children clarify the many emotions they may be experiencing, and then provide reassurance or correct any misconceptions they may have.”

For Katzenstein, monitoring your own distress is vital. “Don’t respond with a lot of emotion as children often mirror your demeanour,” she explains.

“Also, make sure you’re taking care of yourself. It’s an extremely difficult time for all of us and parents need to make sure they are getting plenty of sleep and social support.”

UAE experts are also warning parents to prioritise their own well-being, so they can fully support their children.

“I recommend parents take care of themselves first, before discussing anything with their children,” says Dr Elena Andrioti, a child psychologist in Dubai, parenting advocate and author of Dr Feelings.

“It is normal for parents to feel anxiety and fear after such a traumatic event, and they may need some time to reflect on how this event made them feel.

“Connecting with loved ones, friends, family and maintaining a healthy daily routine is key in helping parents cope with their own stress and attend to their children’s needs.”

Latest photos from Uvalde, Texas after the school shooting:

Updated: May 27, 2022, 7:23 AM