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What to Say to a Child After a School Shooting: 6 Ways to Provide Support and Comfort

Ms. Meyers is a mom, teacher, and author who writes about issues in early childhood education and parenting.

After a School Shooting: 6 Ways to Provide Support and Comfort

After a School Shooting: 6 Ways to Provide Support and Comfort

How to Talk to Kids About School Shootings

Many remember 1995 as the year a 26-year-old anti-government extremist, Timothy McVeigh, parked a Ryder truck full of explosives outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, detonated it, and killed 168 people. McVeigh’s heinous deed remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in our country’s history.

For me, though, 1995 was my first year teaching and I was swamped with drawing up lesson plans, familiarizing myself with the kindergarten curriculum, and striving to make each school day stimulating for my students. I was so wrapped up with my job (and dating the man who’d eventually become my husband) that I was oblivious to the events in Oklahoma City. Since I didn’t own a television, I never saw coverage of the tragedy.

Yet, I started to hear alarming chatter among my 4 and 5-year-old students. I heard them talk about bad guys who had planned the bombing. I heard them say the entire wall of the federal building had been blown off. I heard them say little kids in the daycare center had died.

At that time, I was teaching at an inner-city school in Oakland, California. My students lived in modest houses, duplexes, and apartments nearby, many with three generations under the same roof.

If grandpa were watching footage of the Oklahoma City bombing on CNN all day, everyone in the home heard it and was impacted by it…even if they were too young to understand it…even if they were too young to articulate how scared it made them feel.

Today, with the internet, social media, cell phones, and the 24 hour news cycle, the heartbreaking events of the day travel fast, far, and wide. Even the most conscientious parent can’t protect their child from its devastating impact.

6 Ways to Comfort a Young Child After Yet Another School Shooting

1. Turn off the 24 hour news cycle

2. Have the child draw a picture

3. Empower the child through writing

4. Do a kind gesture in honor of the victims

5. Find comfort in your religion or spiritual practice

6. Look for the helpers

1. Turn Off the 24 Hour News Cycle

When a national calamity unfolds like a mass shooting, adults are obviously curious and want to stay informed. But mental health experts say it’s critical for parents, grandparents, and other grownups to turn off the news when children are in the home.

They explain that little kids aren't mature enough to comprehend the news coverage like adults do. When kids see a rebroadcast of the terrible event — whether it's a school shooting, planes flying into a skyscraper, or a building getting blown up — they think it's happening yet again.

They think the entire world has erupted in a never-ending series of violent acts.

Turning off the TV reduces stress for children and their caretakers. After all, it does nobody any good to hear the same tragic details over and over, making them 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 young children are limited in their ability to articulate thoughts and emotions, child psychologists suggest having them express themselves through art.

Their drawings can give parents powerful insights into what their kids are feeling: their fears, frustrations, sadness, and anger.

After hearing about yet another school shooting, youngsters might draw students hiding under their desks. They might draw a teacher getting shot. They might draw terrified kids running down the hallway to escape.

Making a drawing can be a crucial first step in getting a child to speak up about their anxiety instead of keeping it bottled up inside of them.

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.”

Young children can't always articulate their fears. Letting them draw a picture is a great way for them to express their feelings and give parents insight into their worries.

Young children can't always articulate their fears. Letting them draw a picture is a great way for them to express their feelings and give parents insight into their worries.

3. Empower the Child Through Writing

When a terrorizing event occurs in our country like a school shooting, we all feel vulnerable. This is especially true for young children. They may feel like their world is spinning out of control and they're totally powerless to stop it.

Giving them an age-appropriate activity to do that addresses the problem makes them feel stronger and less helpless.

Writing to the President, their senators, their representative, or a local official are meaningful ways for them to feel like part of the solution. It teaches them how to be proactive citizens.

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. Do a Kind Gesture in Honor of the Victims

Even though children don’t know the people injured or killed in a tragedy, they still find purpose in remembering them. This is especially true when the victims are kids like them.

Performing some thoughtful gesture—whether it’s placing flowers on the tombstones at a cemetery, bringing canned goods to a local homeless shelter, or visiting senior citizens at a retirement home–—helps them feel like they’re honoring the victims in some small way.

They come to see their simple acts of kindness as an antidote for the evil in the world.

Research shows that when we do good deeds we also enhance our own emotional well being. Endorphins get activated in the area of our brains associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. When we behave benevolently, we feel joy and experience a sense of belonging.

5. Find Comfort in Your Religion or Spiritual Practice

If you're a religious family, embrace your beliefs during times of tragedy to make sense of it.

If you’re a spiritual family, turn to your soulful practices to find tranquility.

Young children find comfort in hearing that victims will go to heaven and experience eternal life with God.

They also discover peace by engaging in religious or spiritual rituals such as attending church, praying, lighting candles, singing hymns, meditating, and being in nature.

If children ask why God would let such a calamity happen, preacher Lee Strobel says parents don't need to have all the answers.

He suggests they explain that we don’t know everything while we're here on earth. Some day, though, it will all be clear.

Strobel recommends parents tell youngsters that God is not the creator of evil and suffering in the world. He gave people free will and, sadly, some choose to hurt others rather than love them.

6. Look for the Helpers

After so many school shootings, it's easy to give up hope. Parents, though, don’t have the option to do that, needing to remain optimistic and engaged for the sake of their kids.

Moms and dads need to reassure their children that they and other adults are taking steps to fix the problem. Kids want to know that smart, caring grownups are in charge and are taking care of business.

Fred Rogers, who hosted Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood on PBS for over three decades, offered some 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 comforted when they know brave, competent adults are handling the situation, helping people, and saving lives. If youngsters know to look for the helpers, they'll feel safe and protected.

At a Complete Loss

While my teaching credential program had prepared me for giving instruction in math, science, and reading, it left me at a complete loss for dealing with the emotional distress my students were experiencing.

Since I wasn’t a parent myself yet, I didn’t know what to say or if I should say anything at all. Was it my place to address this horrific event or would I be overstepping my boundaries?

I didn’t want to unduly terrify any youngsters who hadn’t heard about the bombing. Sadly, though, it quickly became evident to me that there weren’t any such kids.

It also became obvious that most parents weren’t talking to their kids about it and weren’t providing them the comfort they needed. Perhaps, they were like me, not knowing what to say and not wanting to scare them.

The Advice of Experts

Unfortunately, our school had no psychologist or counselor to guide us. Therefore, I read up on what experts in child development had to say, following their advice to keep it short and simple:

  • I told my class that Oklahoma City was far away from us in California.
  • I reassured them that they were safe: in their homes, in their neighborhoods, and at their school.
  • I told them the bad guy had been caught and would be severely punished.

Yet, I felt like I wasn’t being truthful with them. They knew bad stuff was going down all around them, not just in faraway places.

What I said may have been sufficient for kids who lived in the leafy suburbs. But, it surely didn't speak to my students who knew all-too-well about drive-by shootings, drug dealings, and armed robberies in the flatlands of Oakland.

Things Have Gotten Much Worse

Today, we’ve endured a long string of mass killings with some occurring at our schools. Teachers and students must now practice active shooter drills in their classrooms. So much has changed for the worse since my first year of teaching when school shootings weren’t yet a problem.

The advice I was given over two decades ago — to tell young children that the tragic event happened far from us and we’re safe here — is no longer credible. It’s not even believable to little kids in the leafy suburbs.

Therefore, I wanted to get updated advice on what parents and other adults should say to young children after yet another school shooting or other horrific event.

Experts on the matter made it clear there's no perfect way to discuss such matters but remaining silent is no longer an option.

In the video below, Mr. Rogers tells parents to have their young children "look for the helpers."

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.

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


Lori Colbo from United States on February 28, 2018:

For sure. I get concerned about the costs for school districts that want to hire security.

McKenna Meyers (author) on February 28, 2018:

Thanks, Lori. I'm very concerned about the psychological toll this is taking on our students as every community across the nation is dealing with threats to our schools. Today, my sons practiced drills in case of a shooting at their high school. I suppose they are doing this at middle and elementary schools as well. The administrators are implementing many new safety measures. I know they're trying their best, but we need the politicians to do their part as well. I'm pretty disgusted.

Lori Colbo from United States on February 28, 2018:

These are very good ideas. God bless you for all you do for our children. I thought the symbolic action was a very unique idea and I think it would be helpful.

McKenna Meyers (author) on February 28, 2018:

Thanks, Readmikenow. I read an article about a 6-year-old girl who was shot at her school playground. Her classmate, the boy she hoped to marry some day, was killed. This little girl has not been able to return to school since the shooting. She pulls out her eyelashes. She has written 2 letters to President Trump. He responded to the first but not the second. I imagine her parents will home-school her from all her years of education. I found it incredibly heartbreaking. We hear about the immediate aftermath of these shootings but not the long-term effects.

McKenna Meyers (author) on February 28, 2018:

Thanks, Dora. Parents and teachers really need expert advice during times like these. I think kids are keeping a lot of fears bottled up inside and need help releasing them. I know parents don't want to frighten their kids, but it's even more frightening when it's not discussed. I just read an article from an expert who claims kids are being told the wrong thing to do during drills. He says they should not be told to hide under desks but told to flee. We definitely need to figure this whole mess out...and fast.

Readmikenow on February 28, 2018:

Very good article. I can only imagine the emotions a child and their parents would have to work through after such an experience.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 28, 2018:

These suggestions are very helpful and be very effective with helping the children. Thank you for sharing.

McKenna Meyers (author) on February 28, 2018:

I agree, Bill. We let it get way out-of-hand. Now school districts all across the country are dealing with threats and schools are scrambling to implement security measures. We parents are sending kids off to school each day, not even knowing if it's the right thing to do. How are the kids processing all this? What are they thinking of the adults who are charged with making sure they're safe? As a parent, I'm struggling with this each day.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 28, 2018:

The fact that this article is even necessary saddens me greatly!