Conversations You Never Expected to Have: Talking with Your Kids About School Shootings

I’m a school counselor in a large high school and my husband is an elementary teacher. To say that school shootings, like the one that happened last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, hit close to home would be an understatement. We’ve both been through A.L.I.C.E. training, which is the active shooter training many schools across the country have adopted. We never thought entering the education world would leave us fearful in our jobs at times.

While we not allow ourselves to live in fear each day, it doesn’t mean that I don’t worry. I worry that there may be a time when my husband or I will have to choose between protecting the kids that we’re responsible for at school or leaving our own babies without a parent. I wish we didn’t have to think about it, but it’s the reality of our lives.

conversations you never expected to have: talking with your kids about school shootings

As a parent, it’s especially hard to know how or even if you should talk about school shootings with your kids.

  • Is it something you should bring up first or allow them to bring up?
  • How much information do you provide?
  • How do you avoid making kids worry too much?

Kids as young as four are hearing about these events. They overhear their parents talking or simply see something on the news. Remember the age and temperament of a child always play a role in how to address things.

Below are ways we, as educators, recommend having these hard conversations:

Kids under Age 7:

If your child is likely to hear about events from friends or somewhere else, then it’s best for you to bring it up to them first. We chose to not bring up any of these events with our young kids (ages 3 and 1). But, a dinner time conversation with my husband about the active shooter training he went through that day caused our 3 year old to ask questions.

Our response to her was very brief with few details. We didn’t bring up the events that happened, but said that we practiced things to keep us safe. This was a good enough response for her. If you choose to bring up the events, keep things simple. A one sentence response in age appropriate language is good enough. An example would be, “A bad person hurt a lot of people, but you are safe with us.”

Safety and comfort are the biggest things for kids this age. Don’t downplay their feelings, but stress to them that your job is to keep them safe. Reassuring them with protective measures or people that are in place to keep them safe can be helpful too.

Elementary Age:

When talking with elementary age students, it’s important to ask them what they have heard and if they have any questions. This allows them to open the lines of communication rather than you sharing details they don’t necessarily need to know. Kids at this age are very black and white thinkers. As a parent, it’s important that you decide how much to share before beginning the conversation. Also, asking your child’s teacher if they have said anything to the class is important. My husband’s school does notify parents when they will hold intruder practice.

When my husband talks with his class before and after the training, he reminds them that he would do anything to protect them and that police officers, parents, and teachers are all there for them as well. He stresses the reason why they practice, so they can stay safe. Teachers may tell students that it’s like practicing for a test. So that if the time came, they would know what to do and not have to worry.

With children elementary age and younger, it’s important to limit news coverage and images of any events. Images can stick with kids a lot longer than words. There is no sense in creating more worry. It’s important to help them understand to try to stay calm and listen to the adults around them.

Tweens & Teens:

Begin the conversation with tweens or teens by asking if they have heard about the events. Let this direct the conversation with them. Ask their feelings about it. This conversation opens up opportunities to talk with them about their beliefs on different issues. Kids at this age begin to form their own opinions rather than follow their parents. Also, you are able to communicate your own insights or beliefs. Just make sure to listen and do not dismiss their feelings!

When the students I work with have displayed anxiety over current events, I listen to their concerns and validate their feelings. Kids at this age, more than any other, just want to be heard and have someone really listen to them. It’s so important to not dismiss them and say that they will be okay. Validate what they are saying.

If you have high school aged students you can talk with them about ways that they can enact change.

  • What can they do to enact change?
  • What can you do together?

It’s important for them to tell a trusted adult if they hear of any threats or dangers from their peers. Please stress this to them.

Remember:

It is okay to tell kids, “I don’t know,” when they ask hard questions. Showing your vulnerability and honesty to the situation creates even more trust with the child. It also validates their feelings regarding the situation. How transparent and honest you are will depend on the age of the child.

While school shootings force us to have conversations we never want to have, they can be powerful moments in our child’s lives, and our own. We cannot control the events of the world, but we can control how we respond to them.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” –Mahatma Ghandi


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Elizabeth is a personable, outgoing mom living in Cedar Rapids and working as a high school counselor. She met her husband, Ryan, in high school, but were friends for several years. They started dating while they were both at the University of Iowa and have been married since 2009. After enjoying 5.5 years as a married couple with only a dog to be responsible for, they added to their family in November 2014 when their daughter Elin was born. They welcomed their second daughter, Myla, in October 2016. In her free time, Elizabeth enjoys being outside, reading, traveling, attempting to be crafty, running, cheering on the Hawkeyes and spending time with family and friends. She’s loved seeing Cedar Rapids through the lens of a mom and all our city has to offer for families.