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How to have 'the talk' with kids about school shootings and mass violence

You can't fix this for your kids, but you can help them process it.
/ Source: TODAY

Do parents now need to add conversations about mass violence to back-to-school prep?

After visiting her new middle school in Coatesville, Indiana, 6th grader Avery Ramsey asked her mom, Sumer, why there were concrete ballasts in front of the doors to the school.

"I explained that it was to stop cars from driving through the doors," Ramsey told TODAY Parents. "I could tell that she was processing something, but we moved on."

The next day, Avery mentioned to her mother that the school building has "so many big windows, and someone could just drive right through them."

Ramsey didn't know what to say to her daughter. "She’s obviously scared," she said. "I’ve read that intruder drills don’t statistically work, so I don’t know if I should reassure her that she’s safe or talk through a plan of action in case of an emergency.

"When I am stressed, I need to be in control of something, so the latter would help me," said Ramsey. "But Avery is 12. She should just be worried about getting her locker open."

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This back-to-school season, with news of shootings and other forms of mass violence flooding the American news and social media feeds, many parents are finding themselves in the same situation as Ramsey. They are buying new backpacks and meeting teachers and sending their children off to their first days of school with a hug and a smile while swallowing their own fears about what could happen, however statistically improbable, during a school day.

"I have not spoken to them [about violence at school]," Thousand Oaks, California, mom Carrie Vining told TODAY Parents.

Though their community experienced a mass shooting at the nearby Borderline Bar and Grill in 2018 and she knows her sons Jake, 13, and Cade, 11, are aware that they happen, she said she doesn't bring up the subject with them. "I don't want to scare them. I want them to be kids and enjoy school."

Parenting and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa told TODAY Parents she understands parents' worry that broaching the topic of violence at their children's schools or in other public places might exacerbate their children's fear and anxiety.

But the reality is that schools will be performing code red drills with students, Gilboa said, and our children will be discussing why with their friends and classmates.

"It doesn't help our kids for us to pretend this isn't happening. It makes them feel more alone, more isolated, and it puts their mental health more at risk dealing with this than if we talk to them about it," she said.

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"This is about teaching our kids resilience and communication skills around mass violence as a topic," said Gilboa, and it is possible to do that in a way that strengthens them without scaring them. But how?

Elementary school

Whether your child is in first grade or twelfth, Gilboa recommends that parents follow the same pattern for talking about all hard topics, beginning with a question.

You can start by asking an elementary school age child, "What are emergencies that you learn to be prepared for in school?" Children might have many answers to that question, depending on where you live: fire drills, hurricanes, or power outages, for example. If they answer, "active shooter drill" or "bad person drill," then you will know the language they use for those drills and if they are aware of them.

If they don't have that language, you can ask, "Do you ever have a practice for if you need to stay in your classroom and lock the door and wait to know if there is somebody unsafe at your school?" said Gilboa. The language you use is important, she noted. "'Someone unsafe' is honest language, but it's not terrifying language," she said.

Once you have established your children have the drills, then you can begin to ask them what they think and feel about doing them. The purpose here is not to give or override instructions on how to be safe at school. Instead, she said, the idea is for you to tell your child, "I know this is a thing, and I am interested in your thoughts and your feelings about this."

You are telling your child you want to hear from them, and "This is something that we should be talking about, because this causes big feelings," said Gilboa.

Middle and High School

Gilboa suggests a similar strategy for addressing the topic of school violence with middle and high school students, with slightly more sophisticated language. The key difference when talking to this age group, she said, is to make sure we resist our parental urge to fix the problem or the worry.

"Empathy and gratitude are all kids these ages are looking for from us," Gilboa said. "They are not looking for solutions, which is good, because you probably don't have any solutions." In fact, if you pretend like you can fix a problem like this for a teenager, you will lose all credibility fast, she said. "They would never believe us."

Instead of fixing, listen to your teen, said Gilboa. Ask them how they feel about the drills and why they do them. "Listen to their words, look at their facial expressions, hear their emotions, and using your expertise of your own child, you will be able to tell how much this is stressing them out or not," she said. Validate their feelings, whatever they are, thank them for being willing to share them with you, and ask them how you can support them. For teenagers, the most important thing is to be heard, said Gilboa.

And though the drills can be scary for kids of any age, Gilboa said there is a silver lining to them: You can use them to bring up this conversation in a way that doesn't add to their fears.

By doing so, you tell them, "They're not in this alone, this isn't a forbidden topic, this isn't for them to process all by themselves," said Gilboa. "We strengthen our kids when we focus on resilience."