During the tragedy of a school shooting, many times people are uncertain what to say or how to react to teens and young adults when faced with the enormity of the situation. People are dead. Others are seriously injured. The sense of order and normality has been swept away by one person’s actions, and many keep repeating, “Why?” Some may have lost a close friend, or someone they knew from class. Others may just be in shock that something like a shooting would happen on their campus. Still others who simply have heard about the shooting but live thousands of miles away wonder, “Could this happen to me? Could this happen at my school??”
We’ve compiled a number of tips from leading experts on how to talk to others about a school shooting they may have been involved in.
1. First and foremost — listen to the student. People need to vent, to express all of their concerns, fears, outrage, anger, and upset. They’re not looking for answers or judgment, only for someone to listen to them. Be that person.
2. After the person has spent some time talking about their fears and concerns, reassure them of their safety — that the entire community is now focused on keeping them safe and secure. Acknowledge that those in charge may not have all the answers, or may have not done everything right, but are now putting every effort to ensure the incident is never, ever repeated. If they want more information, provide them with what efforts local officials and the police are making to keep the school safe and protected in the future.
3. When discussing the events with younger children, the amount of information shared should be limited to some basic facts. Use words meaningful to them (not words like sniper, etc.). Do not go into specific details with young children, because it will often be more scary and less understood than those who are older and understand the importance or meaning of such details.
4. Someone who has been involved in an incident like a shooting or has heard of a shooting will often ask, “Can this happen to me? Can this happen here?” Do not lie. Reiterate how the community is focused on working to keep everyone safe in the community.
5. Parents, caregivers and teachers should be cautious of permitting young children to watch news or listen to radio that is discussing or showing the situation. It is too difficult for most of them to process. Personal discussions are the best way to share information with this group. Also, plan to discuss this many times over the coming weeks.
6. When discussing the events with preteens and teens, more detail is appropriate, and many will already have seen news broadcasts. Do not let them focus too much on graphic details. Rather, elicit their feelings and concerns and focus your discussions on what they share with you. Be careful of how much media they are exposed to. Talk directly with them about the tragedy and answer their questions truthfully.
7. Although this group is more mature, do not forget to reassure them of their safety and your efforts to protect them. Regardless of age, kids must hear this message.
8. Be on the lookout for physical symptoms of anxiety that children may demonstrate. They may be a sign that a child, although not directly discussing the situation, is very troubled by the recent events. Talk more directly to children who exhibit these signs more frequently than usual:
- Excessive worry
- Stomach aches
- Increased arguing
- Back aches
- Trouble sleeping or eating
- Loss of concentration
- Refusal to go to school
- Clinging behavior
9. Parents and caregivers should often reassure children that they will be protected and kept safe. During tragedies like these, words expressing safety and reassurance with concrete plans should be discussed and agreed upon within the family to provide the most comfort to children and teens.
10. If you are concerned about your children and their reaction to this or any tragedy, talk directly with their school counselor, family doctor, local mental health professional. Suggest to older children and teens to visit a resource, such as the teen-help website, www.teencentral.net, which provides anonymous and clinically-screened help and resources for teen problems before they become overwhelming.