By Beth Tyson, MA - Childhood Trauma Consultant
Today I was interviewed by Your Teen For Parents Media about how to talk to our children about school shootings. It was a timely conversation due to the mass threats that circulated last night on social media across the United States. These are scary times to be living in, and there is not a perfect answer for our children right now.
Unfortunately, these constant threats to our safety are detrimental to our mental health unless we know how to cope. Since most people are not trained as mental health professionals, I am sharing what I know to help as many people as possible.
If you need support and resources for helping your family manage the high anxiety that school shootings are causing Sue, Editor in Chief at Your Teen for Parents and I have some helpful guidance to share in this video.
Please watch the replay of our discussion and read the transcript below for education on how to support our children through the school shooting crisis.
Questions and Answers between Your Teen for Parents
and Beth Tyson on School Shootings
Your Teen for Parents: Should we ask our kids about school shootings or wait for them to bring it up? Is it different for middle school and high school?
Beth: Ask them what they’ve heard. Start off general and get more specific if needed. “Have you heard anything scary at school recently?” if they say no, you can say, I heard on the news something about a school shootings, have you heard anything lately? Try to get a feel for what they already know so you don’t share more information than they need to hear.
Your Teen: We all seem to want more details when there is a crisis. Can it harm our kids to have too much information?
Beth: Kids need the age-appropriate truth. We can’t shield our children from the world and if we do they won’t be prepared to handle the information when they find out on their own. It’s a parents natural instinct to want to avoid scaring our children, but avoiding scary topics actually increases anxiety in both you and them. It’s better to be straight-forward with tweens and teens, but leave out unnecessary frightening details they don’t need to know.
In addition, they are likely going to hear something at school and on social media anyway, so it’s better you provide them with the correct information which is sometimes less scary than the stories they are hearing. Talking about hard topics also teaches your children that they can come to you no matter how upsetting the conversation. It’s helpful to remind them "There’s nothing that is too scary to talk to me about. I can handle it and I’m here to give you the truth and protect you. We will get through this together." In this way the school shootings can open up dialogue and build trust between you and your children.
Example of how to explain a school shooting to teens: "When someone with an unhealthy brain doesn't get help and is very angry sometimes they decide to hurt people. Usually they are aiming to get revenge on bullies and others who have rejected them. That’s why it’s important to tell me or a counselor at school if you hear of bullying or threats that are being made against people. This is also why it’s important to not participate in bullying and be kind to everyone at school."
Your Teen: What if it seems like the news is making our kid increasingly more anxious? And what can we say?
Beth: When possible limit exposure to news media. The media’s goal is to get eyeballs to watch and they don’t care how it affects our mental health. When children watch the same distressing stories of violence over and over again they begin to believe it is happening more frequently than it actually is which will increase their anxiety. Explain to tweens and teens the motives behind the news, that it is there to get people’s attention and they often exaggerate situations in order to keep our attention.
Your Teen: What shouldn’t we say?
Beth: Never shame or invalidate a child’s feelings about these events. Outdated ways of parenting might seep into these situations where adults tell tweens and teens to toughen up and don’t be scared, but that can be harmful to children’s emotional well-being. Nobody is a perfect parent, so if you say the wrong thing practice admitting you were wrong and ask for a re-do. This will teach your child to do the same when they make a mistake.
As adults it can be hard to sit with a child’s fear because we are also fearful of their feelings and what’s going on in the world. As a defense we might want to tell children there’s nothing to be scared of, and deny their feelings. That is not helpful to their mental health. Validate their feelings even if you yourself are not scared. Tell them it is ok to be afraid. There is inherent risk with being alive. The truth is we all are going to die at some point. Make this an opportunity to talk openly about fears of death which all of us experience from time to time. When we normalize death by talking about it more frequently it will reduce our anxiety.
Your Teen: What if our kid is afraid to go to school? Should we help them identify who can help them at school about their anxiety?
Beth: Do everything you can to support their anxiety and help them confront their fears. Avoiding what scares us teaches our brain that there really IS something to be afraid of and strengthens those anxious beliefs and feelings. Avoidance makes anxiety grow, and facing what scares us reduces anxiety. That is why exposure therapy works so well for phobias and other anxiety disorders. The more we are exposed to a situation the less fearful we become. Remind children that school shootings are actually rare compared to other causes of death. Top causes of teen death are 1. Accidents, 2. Suicide 3. Cancer. Not school shootings.
Your Teen: What if our kids hear something worrisome at school or online?
Beth: Use it as an opportunity to build trust and increase bonding with your child. Teach them to be an advocate for gun safety by alerting school employees if they suspect a threat, no matter how trivial or fake it seems. Help children face their fears by talking about worst case scenarios and making a plan that will empower them to feel safe. Reassure them that adults have security systems in place to keep them safe, that is why they do the drills, and why there is a process for people entering the buildings. Let them know it is the adults job to keep them safe and they are doing everything they can to alert us ahead of time of danger.
Your Teen: We the parents are having our own reaction and fear. Should we share that with our kids?
Beth: Yes, in a controlled manner, we can share with our children that we are also afraid. It is critical that we show our uncomfortable emotions to children so they know it is normal to have these feelings. Knowing others feel the same way we do reduces anxiety. Be mindful not to lean on your child for support and always remain in a caregiver role. Seek therapy if you have any concerns about yourself or your children. If you feel too anxious to function in your everyday life, are having panic attacks, or experience persistent feelings of hopelessness seek professional mental health counseling by a licensed provider.
Your Teen: Is it a good idea to talk about ways that our kids can get involved in making change?
Beth: YES! Get involved with gun safety programs in your local community. Raise funds and ask for donations for non-profits like The Sandy Hook Promise.
Your Teen: What if our kids want to try to get involved either through advocacy or some other way to help make a difference? What can they do? Any ideas?
Beth: Plan a fundraising event to build local awareness. Reach out to local political figures who can enact change. You can send emails, write letters, and leave voicemails with your politicians. Work together with the whole family. Get your school and community involved.
Your Teen: Can we say anything to make our kids feel safe?
Beth: I think we can normalize death for our children and this will naturally reduce the amount of anxiety they experience about school shootings. We can encourage them to do things to keep themselves healthy. Make them aware of the infrequency of these events. According to NBC News since 2013 there have been 46 school shootings, killing 70 people. We have 100,000 public schools in the US so the ratio is relatively small. Of course every loss of life matters, and is horrific. I don’t want to minimize the threats, but it does help to put things into perspective. The news tends to give misconstrued information.
Your Teen: When should we seek professional help?
Beth: You know your child best but you might not be with them most of the day. Periodically check in with teachers, coaches, and others who spend time with your child to see if they’ve noticed any changes in their behavior. The sooner you get help the better. If you notice changes in mood, appetite, sleep, stomach aches, headaches, inability to maintain daily functioning, panic attacks, excessive worrying your child should see a therapist. If you or anyone you know threatens to harm themselves or someone else report it immediately and seek help for them.
I am wishing everyone a safe and healthy 2022. If you would like to schedule a speaking event on children's mental health, childhood trauma, or grief please contact me to schedule an event at BethTyson.com. You can also join our Facebook group Emotiminds, a private community for family emotional well-being skills.
Beth Tyson, MA, is a Childhood Trauma Consultant, Author, and Public Speaker for Children's Mental Health.
She is an advocate for conscious parenting and has several years of experience as a mental health professional working with children and families impacted by trauma. She is also a trauma survivor and knows first hand the pain of unexpected loss and family separation.
To learn more email me at email@example.com. I read every single email I receive and I promise to respond to you.