As we all know, on the morning of November 14, 2019, a sixteen year old boy walked into his high school, Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, pulled out a .45 caliber handgun from his backpack and fired on a group of students. In 16 seconds he shot 5 students and then himself. The shooter and two of his victims died; the last of the three survivors left the hospital today.
GCP has been writing about how to talk with our children about these shootings for too many years. In fact, our last piece advising parents on how to have these conversations was posted just over a year ago, after a gunman opened fired on college students in a California bar. Sadly, we are running an edited version of this post again below. Our children are learning to live in a world where schools can be targets, and we have to help them cope with this.
We can barely absorb the horrific news of one shooting before another takes place. It is hard for us, and even harder for our children. How do we talk to them about these shootings?
GCP has had to focus on talking with our children about mass shootings several times in recent years. The information hasn’t changed and certainly bears repeating. Experts tell us that our approach to discussing mass shootings varies depending on how old our children are.
Preschool: Discuss only if your child brings it up. Since we have a great deal of control over what our preschoolers see or hear, it is possible that your little ones aren’t focused on this. No need to bring it up, and keep them away from news on the tv and other devices. But if they bring it up, tell them the very basics (“a lot of people were hurt, the man who hurt them was stopped”). Assure them that they are safe, and that you will keep them safe.
Elementary School (the early years): Keep it Simple. You should proactively talk to your child about what happened, as they are likely to hear about it in school or elsewhere. Give them a brief and simple version, reassure them that they are safe and that you and the other adults in their lives are there to protect them. Remind them about the safety drills they practice in school. Ask them if they have any questions, and encourage them to come to you if they do. Don’t force them to have a conversation about it if they don’t want to but be sure to bring it up. Monitor the time they spend in front of the TV, especially if the news is on.
Later Elementary school/Middle School: Listen First, Then Talk. Ask what they have heard about it, and what they think, and let their answers guide your conversation. Correct any wildly wrong information, but give them the space to lead the discussion, and try to limit the scope of your answers to the questions they ask. Children in these ages are likely to be more focused on their safety and what they would do in case of an attack. Encourage them to focus on the number of first responders who helped the people who were hurt, and who made a very bad situation better, and how helpful and compassionate people have been and continue to be when others are hurt. Talk with them about drills in school, and the importance of following instructions in school when drills happen. Talk about your emergency plans at home as well. (Good time to make some concrete plans if you haven’t already.)
High School: Address Their Concerns. Your older children will likely have been exposed to a lot of coverage of these events, on their devices at home and at school. Discourage them from spending too much time on the media coverage. Encourage them to talk with you about how they are feeling, and to continue talking to you as the days go by. Talk with them about the importance of focusing on safety (and exits) whenever they are in large crowds. Be prepared for discussions about hate crimes, PTSD, gun regulation and control. Make yourself available for discussion but don’t force it if your high schoolers are not overly interested in extended conversations. Follow their lead.
Continue to monitor your children’s exposure to the media onslaught of information about these shootings as much as you can. Also remember that your children (of all ages) will be watching your reaction as well, so try to keep your emotions in check in their presence. You can agree that it is a scary situation, but try to maintain your cool during these discussions, even if your children say things that you don’t expect to hear. It may be tough but it is important to do.