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Tampa Bay experts share tips for talking to your kids about mass shootings

After the massacre at a Texas elementary school, the Times asked local experts to weigh in.
Flowers and candles are placed outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday to honor the victims killed in Tuesday's school shooting. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing several fourth graders and their teachers.
Flowers and candles are placed outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday to honor the victims killed in Tuesday's school shooting. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing several fourth graders and their teachers. [ JAE C. HONG | AP ]
Published May 25|Updated May 25

In the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the Tampa Bay Times wrote about how parents could talk to their kids about the massacre.

“Stories like this only feel far away on maps,” the Times wrote then. “They’re brought to us every second through our TVs and our cellphones, our radios and our newspapers. They surround us — and our kids.”

Today’s kids are increasingly connected to the world; Jennifer Katzenstein, the director of psychology, neuropsychology and social work at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, said exposure to social media begins as early as four months. Mass shootings rose nearly every year since 2014, with 692 of them last year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The United States has had at least 27 school shootings so far this year, Education Week reported.

Nearly a decade after Sandy Hook, and four years after the high school massacre in Parkland, a gunman on Tuesday killed 21 people, 19 of them children, at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, officials said. The shooting came 10 days after another gunman, allegedly motivated by racist hatred and conspiracy theories, killed 10 people in Buffalo, New York.

Parents and other trusted adults are again faced with the question of how to talk to kids about these killings, and they’re now doing it in an era defined by an ease of access to information and an epidemic of gun violence. So the Times turned, again, to experts for advice.

Get grounded first

Just as a school shooting may cause fear or anxiety for kids, it can also lead parents to worry about the safety of their children, experts acknowledged. Those feelings are normal, said LaDonna Butler, a therapist who co-founded St. Petersburg’s The Well for Life, and it’s important for parents to first process their emotions with a trusted friend or loved one before talking to their kids.

“We have to be OK ourselves, grounded ourselves, in order to be able to support our children with this conversation,” Butler said.

Parents should be mindful of their own mental health, Katzenstein said; distress over a mass shooting is a good reason to check in with a therapist. Staying calm is key when discussing violence with kids.

“The challenge as parents, as I’ll often say, (is) our kids are looking to us for what their reactions should be,” she said. “Big emotions are going to be contagious and lead to other big emotions.”

Find the right opening

Children’s age, development and personality determine how or whether they bring up mass shootings, and should determine how parents respond or broach the subject, Katzenstein said. Kids usually begin understanding and engaging with news around age 7 or 8, she said. Some may ask questions after hearing about a shooting on social media or from classmates, but parents have other ways of telling what’s on their kids’ minds.

“A great place to start is that daily check-in question of ‘How are you doing, and what are you thinking about?’” Katzenstein said. “If the first thing our kids share with us is something about schools and teachers talking about safety, or a school shooter safety drill, then that’s a perfect time to dive into the conversation.”

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Changes in kids’ behavior may also signal a need for a conversation, she said: Are they having separation anxiety, trouble sleeping? Plenty of children are more inclined to express their emotions indirectly, through art or music or poetry, Butler said.

Don’t run from ‘big emotions’

Parents don’t have to be clinical. Sharing emotions with kids — and naming them in kid-friendly language — shows kids that it’s OK to be emotional, experts said, and it can open doors for more conversation.

“As a parent myself, feeling horrified and terrified and anxious about my own child at school might lend itself to tears and big emotions, but then (to) having that conversation after about why that happened: Wanting to keep our kids safe, loving our children so much,” Katzenstein said.

Allow for difference

Parents should tell kids the truth, experts said, but that doesn’t always mean going into much, or any, detail. Younger children need broad, understandable language — “Some people are really sad, and some people got really hurt,” Butler said by way of example. Teenagers may want to talk about specifics, or explore socio-political aspects of mass shootings and how they interact with their families’ values.

But there’s plenty of variation beyond age, Butler said. Adults around kids who have experienced their own trauma should be conscious of how the conversations might affect them.

Feelings may vary in the same household, as Butler said she saw when she talked about Tuesday’s shooting with her teenage children. One of them wanted to read the news, to find as much as he could to make sense of it; another told her he wanted to think about it and would come back when he was ready to talk. The third, Butler said, simply told her: “These are things that are happening more and more.”

“In their short little lives,” Butler said, “mass shootings are what happen.”

Prioritize comfort and movement

These conversations should happen in a safe, intentional setting, Butler said. Have a family meal beforehand, so everyone can settle in. Make room for an activity afterward — a walk, a place for kids to make art or move around. Let them know it doesn’t have to be a one-time conversation, and be ready to do it all again.

“The most important thing to do is maintain those daily transparent conversations with our kids,” Katzenstein said.

Maintain routine

Tuesday’s shooting came as Tampa Bay schools and much of the rest of the country near summer break. Still, experts said, kids should finish out the year even if the news makes them afraid. Other routines should continue as normal. When there’s disruption in the world, Butler said, predictability is safety.

“I might give you an extra cupcake,” she said. “I might hold you a little tighter. But we’re not going to disrupt the way in which we are moving, because you need to know that we’re going to be OK.”

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