Parents today too often find themselves speaking to their children about the violence that seems to permeate the news. The recent school shooting in Texas raises questions for kids of all ages and has triggered many parents to ask us how to talk to them about it. First take a moment to consider your own reaction to this news, as well as the age of your child. There are no easy answers, but it is important to first address your own emotional response to the tragedy. Then, consider the following approaches based on your child’s age:
- 8 years old or younger: Most experts agree that children younger than eight should not be informed about a shooting or shown images of it. Children in this age group are more likely to feel unsafe even though the attack may have occurred far from where they live. If a child is accidentally informed, provide reassurance that they are safe. If the suspect was apprehended (or killed), you can tell them that the “bad guy” was arrested and he or she can’t hurt them. If not, reassure them that the police are looking for that person and that you and the other people in their life have taken careful measures to ensure their safety.
- 9 to 13 years old: Children in this age group are more likely to be aware of what is going on outside of their immediate surroundings. A good way to start the conversation is to ask them directly what they may have heard. It is appropriate to share some limited information about the attack without providing too much detail. In addition, children at these ages would benefit from an opportunity to share their feelings and have them validated by a parent or caregiver. They may appreciate your refocusing their attention on positive stories, like the heroic acts of bystanders and first-responders. Similar to younger children, this age group should not view news coverage or images of the attack.
- 14 to 17 years old: Parents should ask their teens if they have heard about a recent attack because most likely they are aware of it. It will be important for you to correct any misinformation they may have obtained through conversations with friends and validate their feelings about the tragedy. Also, asking your teen what he or she thinks might help them to feel better. They may want to help by writing letters or organizing a donation drive. Teens also can benefit from hearing positive and heroic stories coming out of a tragedy.
Regardless of their age, all children need to be reassured that they are safe and that the likelihood of them being in a similar attack is very small. Don’t hesitate to contact a school counselor or other mental health profession if you have any concerns about how your child is coping.