• By Deb Balzer

Helping children cope with school shooting: Tips for talking about tragedy

May 25, 2022
a Black man, perhaps a father, with his arm on the shoulder of a young Black boy in support and comfort

As the nation tries to comprehend the shooting at a school in Texas that claimed 21 lives, many are now trying to find ways to have conversations with their children to help them cope.

Listening to your child at this time is important, says Dr. Paul Croarkin, a Mayo Clinic child psychiatrist.

"Listening provides comfort, stability and safety for children," says Dr. Croarkin. All children have different communication styles.  Initially, they may not want to discuss what happened but opportunities for listening may come later at unexpected times. It is best not to force or press children to discuss things until they are ready."

"Children often personalize things and may worry about friends or relatives near the event. Be creative and flexible in communicating with your child. Some children are more comfortable using art, toys, or writing for expression. Teenagers in particular often just want their parents around consistently without the pressure to communicate," Dr. Croarkin says. "Create structured time to simply be present and silent with an open door for communication."

Tragedies like this affect everyone. When it comes to talking to our children, it is normal to be nervous.

"This is completely normal and expected," says Dr. Croarkin. "Communicating with children, particularly in times of crisis with difficult topics, is never easy. Be kind to yourself and keep it simple in your communications. Let children be who they are and do your best to provide listening, honest communication, and support.  Remember, no one is better qualified for communicating with your child than you."

How do you start a conversation with your children about a tragedy?

Talking to your children about a tragedy can help them understand what happened, feel safe and begin to cope. Silence might make the event seem more threatening to your children.

If possible, choose a time when your children are likely to want to talk, such as before dinner. Ask your children what they already know and what questions or concerns they have. Let your children's answers guide your discussion.

How do you explain the tragedy to your children?

When talking to preschool children, get down to their eye level. Speak in a calm voice using words they will understand. Explain what happened and that you will keep caring for them. For older children, use gentle words and offer comfort. Encourage them to share any worries.

Consider your children's age when sharing details. Listen to your children for misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears. Provide accurate information.

How might your children react?

Your children might experience fear, shock, anger, anxiety and grief. Your children's age will affect how they handle the stress of a tragedy.

For example:

  • Preschool children
    Children in this age range become clingy or want to stay in a place that makes them feel safe. Some children might revert to wetting the bed or sucking their thumbs. Avoid criticizing your children for this behavior.
  • Elementary and early middle school children
    At these ages, children might be scared to go to school, have trouble sleeping and paying attention, or become aggressive. They might grieve in short segments and show persistent concern for their safety.
  • Upper middle school and high school children
    Older children might deny that they're upset. Some children might complain about aches because they're unable to identify what's bothering them. Others might start arguments or resist authority. Some children might experience depression, anger and sleep problems.

These reactions are normal. However, if your children continue to display these behaviors for more than two to four weeks, they might need more help coping. If you're concerned about your children's reaction, talk to a mental health professional.

What can you do to help your children cope?

To help your children process what happened:

  • Remain calm. 
    Your children will look to you for cues about how to react. It's OK for children to see adults sad or crying, but consider excusing yourself if you're experiencing intense emotions.
  • Reassure your children that they are safe. 
    Point out factors that ensure your children's immediate safety. Review your home safety procedures. Make your home a comforting space for your children.
  • Limit media exposure. 
    Constantly watching news coverage of a tragedy can heighten anxiety. When older children watch or read news reports, try to do it with them.
  • Avoid placing blame. 
    If the tragedy was caused by human violence or error, be careful not to blame a cultural, racial or ethnic group, or people who have mental illnesses.
  • Maintain the routine. 
    To give your children a sense of normalcy, keep up your family's usual dinner, homework and bedtime routines.
  • Spend extra time together. 
    This can foster your children's sense of security. If your children are having trouble sleeping, allow them to sleep with a light on or to sleep in your room for a short time.
  • Encourage the expression of feelings. 
    Explain that it's OK to be upset. Let your children write about or draw what they are feeling. Encourage time with friends. Physical activity might be an outlet for frustration.
  • Do something. 
    Consider ways to help people affected by tragedy and their families. Hold a service related to the tragedy. You might work with your children to write thank-you notes to first responders.

What else can you do?

Caring for yourself after a tragedy is important. Pay attention to your feelings and lean on loved ones or talk to a mental health professional. Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet and stay active. This will enable you to care for your children and be a role model for how to cope.

This article was written by Mayo Clinic staff. Find more health and medical information on mayoclinic.org.