How to Comfort Your Child After a School Shooting
The Kindergarten Kids Knew More Than I Did
I was a first-year kindergarten teacher at an inner city school in the Bay Area when a truck loaded with explosives was detonated outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. One hundred and sixty-eight people were killed and hundreds more were injured. Nineteen of the dead were young children in the building's daycare center. That was an incredibly busy time in my life as I launched my teaching career and started dating my now-husband. I didn't own a television, so I didn't know the details of that horrific event. Much to my surprise and dismay, however, most of my 4- and 5-year-old students did. They came to class each day in the wake of the tragedy, talking about what they'd seen on the news—about the “bad guys” who planned the bombing, about the building's north wall that was totally blown off and, of course, about the children who died—kids who were close in age to them.
I Was at a Loss for What to Say
While my credential program prepared me well for teaching math, science, and reading, it left me at a loss for addressing the emotional needs of my students after such a traumatic event. Not knowing what to say to these young children, I read up on what psychologists advised and went with that. I explained to my class that Oklahoma City was far away from us in California, and they were safe here in their homes, their neighborhoods, and at their school. I told them the bad guys had been caught and would be punished. Yet, in my heart, I felt like it wasn't enough and didn't speak to their experiences growing up in inner city Oakland with its drive-by shootings, drug dealings, and high crime rate. They knew that bad stuff happened all around them, not just far away.
I Needed to Hear From Experts
Now, after a long string of shootings and on-going threats to our schools across the nation, parents, teachers, and students are on edge. The advice I took years ago to tell young children that the tragic event happened far away and we're safe here is no longer valid. I found myself at a loss to know how to discuss it with my teenage sons let alone with kids who are 4 and 5. With this in mind, I decided once again to turn to experts at this sad time and find out what parents should say and do after a school shooting:
1. Turn Off the 24-Hour News Cycle
When a tragic event happens, parents are obviously curious and want to get informed. But one of the worst things they can do is turn on the 24 hour news cycle while their kids are in the room or nearby. That's because youngsters aren't mature enough to comprehend the news coverage like adults do. Every time they see the re-broadcast of the terrible event— whether it's a student shooting up a school, planes flying into a skyscraper, or a building getting blown up — they think it's happening again and again. They think the entire world has erupted in a never-ending series of violent acts.
Turning off the television greatly reduces stress for both children and grownups. It does nobody any good to hear the same tragic details over and over, making us feel hopeless and depressed. Dr. Graham Davey, who studies the psychological effects of media violence, says that exposure to such tragedies can cause great anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
2. Have the Child Draw a Picture
Because most young children have a limited ability to articulate their thoughts and feelings, child psychologists often let them express themselves through art. This is an excellent strategy for parents to adopt as well after a traumatic event like a school shooting. Having a youngster draw a picture of the tragedy gives moms and dads a concrete depiction of what's going on in her head. She might draw herself hiding under a desk, her teacher getting shot, or scared kids running down the hallway to escape. With this visual aid, her mom and dad can address her fears head-on, offering love and support and answering her questions.
Making a drawing can be a crucial first step in getting a child to speak up about her anxiety. While the youngster didn't experience the event firsthand, she still needs to talk about it and relate it to her own life. This is especially important after a school shooting because that environment is theirs. Dr. Cathy Malchiodi, an art therapist and research psychologist, helps children recover from painful events by having them draw. She writes, “research supports that drawing encourages children to provide more details and to organize their narratives in a more manageable way than children who are asked only to talk about traumatic experiences.”
3. Have the Child Write a Letter or Card
When a traumatic event happens in our country, we all feel scared and vulnerable, especially young children. They may feel like the world is spinning out of control and they're totally powerless to stop it. Giving them an age-appropriate activity to confront the problem makes them feel stronger and less frightened. Making cards for the victims' family or writing to the president, their senator, their representative, or a local official are ways for them to feel like part of the solution. It also teaches them how to be pro-active citizens in our government.
Dr. Art Markman, a cognitive scientist, touts the benefits of writing after trauma. He says it forces us to face the problem, make sense of it in our minds, and organize our thinking. Markman says writing brings us a measure of peace as “the mind is most settled when there is coherence to our thoughts.”
4. Perform a Symbolic Gesture
Even though the tragedy may have happened clear across the country, a child may perform a symbolic gesture in honor of the victims. Doing something concrete such as bringing flowers to place on the tombstones at a cemetery, bringing canned goods to a local homeless shelter, or visiting senior citizens at a retirement home will empower a child and make her feel better. She'll see that doing acts of kindness is a good antidote for the evil in the world.
Scientific evidence supports doing good acts as a means to enhance one's well being. When a person shows kindness, endorphins are produced that activate the areas of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. The person who acts benevolently receives a benefit herself — feeling joy and experiencing a sense of belonging.
5. Turn to Your Religion
If you're a religious family, tragedies are the time to embrace your faith and use it to make sense of the loss. Young children are comforted when they're told victims will go to heaven and experience eternal life with God. They also benefit from religious rituals that bring them peace and hope — going to church, praying, lighting candles, and singing hymns.
If children ask why God let this tragedy happen, preacher Lee Strobel says parents don't need to have all the answers. They can explain that while we're here on earth, we don't know everything, but someday it will all become clear. Strobel suggests moms and dads tell youngsters that God is not the creator of evil and suffering in the world. He gave people free will and some choose to hurt others rather than love them.
6. Look for the Helpers
After so many school shootings, it's easy to feel cynical that nothing is being done to remedy the situation. Parents, however, need to remain optimistic for the sake of their kids. They need to reassure them that adults are taking steps to fix the problem. Young children need to know that grownups are in charge and are looking out for their safety. Otherwise, they'll feel terrified and alone and may suffer long-term psychological issues.
Fred Rogers, who hosted Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood on PBS for over three decades, offered advice to parents that he got from his own mother. When a tragedy occurred, his mom would say, “look for the helpers”— the paramedics, the firefighters, the teachers, the police officers, the doctors, and the nurses. Children feel better when they know brave and competent adults are handling the situation, helping people, and saving lives. If youngsters know to look for the helpers, they'll always have hope.
Mr. Rogers' Advice to Parents Is to Tell Young Children "Look for the Helpers"
7. Brainstorm Ideas to Solve the Problem
We all feel more powerful when we can find solutions to problems, and kids are no exception. Hearing them out and listing their ideas on a piece of paper makes them feel important. After so many school shootings, many moms and dads are feeling fatigued and have nothing left to say. Now is a good time to let the kids do the talking and find out what's on their minds. At scary moments like this, children need to know they can talk with their parents about anything.
A brainstorming activity lets a youngster verbalize her fears. She may reveal some misconceptions she has about the event and her parents can set her straight. When my son was in middle school, I was shocked at the misinformation he had on many issues in the news, getting his "facts" from friends on social media. It made me realize how important it is to talk about the news of the day at the dinner table. While kids have more access to information than ever before, so much of it is inaccurate, biased, and downright dangerous.
This Is the Book You Need to Talk With Your Child on a Wide Range of Topics
Parents and children need to be talking and listening to one another on a daily basis, not waiting for a school shooting, unexpected pregnancy, or a flunking grade to have a conversation. This classic book is an essential part of your parenting library and will strengthen your communication skills in all aspects of your life. A dear friend gave it to me at my baby shower, and I've referred to it often over the years. When I fall into bad habits of lecturing rather than listening, nagging rather than letting go, and controlling rather than letting them make their own mistakes, I know it's time to get inspiration from this book. My husband read it as well so we've always been on the same page when it comes to talking and listening with our sons and that has been extremely helpful for our marriage and our parenting.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2018 McKenna Meyers