How to Talk to Your Kids About the Tennessee School Shooting

holding hands: how to talk to kids about school shootings
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Your heart feels scrubbed raw; your mind drained and defeated. What once seemed unthinkable—a school shooting—has now happened again, and you’re staring into the eyes of your child, trying to create a sense of safety, security and support in a world that seems devoid of it. Where do you even begin? How do you comfort a child who just learned that six people—including three kids—have been killed in Nashville, TN, as headlines remind us there have been more mass shootings in 2023 than days of the year?

It's no easy conversation to have, but it’s a necessary one—even if your kids haven't brought it up or don't seem aware it happened. "Even if children haven’t heard about this tragic event, it might come up the next day or at some point in the near future," says Dr. Nina Vasan, MD, MBA and Chief Medical Officer at mental health service Real, noting that it will likely come up in their friend group or by some other means. "Take this opportunity to have the conversation now on your terms." Here’s how to address the pain they’re feeling in an age-appropriate way, according to therapists and family psychologists.

1. Create a Safe Space to Talk

Asking open-ended questions allows your child to lead the conversation, a tactic the Child Mind Institute recommends. This creates a framework for your discussion, and it can be as simple as asking, “What do you know about what’s happening? How do you feel about it?” says Dr. Zachary Kahn, clinical psychologist at a school and in private practice told us earlier this year.

If they haven't heard about the shooting, you can introduce it gently: "Don’t push information on them," Dr. Vasan says. "You can couch it in the framing of 'your parents are upset about this...'.”

This opens the door to the conversation, and throughout it, it’s important to reassure your kids that they are safe. (While horrific, mass shootings account for roughly 1 percent of deaths from gun violence.) Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective, says Reena B. Patel, parenting and school psychologist. Maybe they feel disconnected from it and shrug it off; that's OK. Maybe they're freaking out that something like this could happen in their school; that's OK too.

"Pay attention to what they are asking about," Dr. Vasan says. "What are they concerned about? What did they see? What do they understand? What do they not understand? What are their feelings? This is a good time to validate and normalize your child’s feelings."

Vasan adds: "As adults, we may come to these conversations about our own assumptions about what they are scared about versus what they aren’t. If we don’t listen, we can end up trying to solve for the wrong concern."

If they're struggling with fears a shooting could happen at their school, the National Association of School Psychologists recommends discussing the difference between the possibility of a school shooting happening and the probability that it will happen to them. It can be hard to believe schools are safe in light of these shootings. However, in running the numbers over the past 12 years, there's a one-in-10-million chance of death by gunfire at school. As sickening as any chance of being shot at school is, taking a look at the probability of it happening can help ease fears that this is the new normal. From there, it's critical to explain how the situation is being handled, and discuss what measures your family, school and community are taking to keep kids safe (more on that in part two).

If your kids heard the news before you could speak to them, find out where—and how. “Sometimes there are misconceptions, or they get information from friends that is not correct,” Talkspace licensed therapist Cynthia Catchings has told us.

2. Address Things in an Age-Appropriate Way

Striking the right balance of how much information to give can be the hardest part. To that end, Patel and the National Association of School Psychologists recommend the following:

  • If your child’s in elementary school, provide a brief, simplified account of what happened that’s balanced with reassurances that their homes and school are safe. Provide examples of the things the school and adults do to protect them, like locking exterior doors and keeping an eye on them while they’re outside playing.
  • If your child’s in middle school, they’ll probably have more questions for you—particularly whether they’re actually safe (a very valid concern). Talk about what the school and community is doing to protect students.
  • If your child’s in high school, you can expound on this further. It’s more common for kids at this age to want to feel in control of their safety. “Remind them to follow school safety guidelines and how important it is to report any threats or unusual behaviors they see,” Patel says. “Encouraging children at this age to seek out help to support their mental health needs is important too.”
woman pays respects outside of The Covenant School, where six people were killed

3. Review (or Establish) Your Family’s Strategies For Staying Safe

In addition to discussing what you’re doing at home and at school to stay safe, this is an important time to ask your kids to identify an adult at school and one in your neighborhood (such as a family friend) they can turn to if they feel threatened or have reason to believe something bad might happen. Reassure them that they can always talk to you as well.

“There’s a difference between reporting, tattling or gossiping,” says The National Association of School Psychologists in its guidelines on discussing school violence. “You can provide important information that may prevent harm either directly or anonymously by telling a trusted adult what you know or hear.”

4. Help Them Find an Outlet

Not every kid is up for a heart-to-heart. “Some children prefer writing, playing music or doing an art project as an outlet,” The National Association of School Psychologists advises. “Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.”

5. Limit Doomscrolling

Reading as much as you can on a topic can make you feel more in control, but it can also send you—and especially kids—in a spiral of anxiety and fear. Patel advises parents to be mindful of the conversations they’re having with other adults in earshot of their kids, as well as limiting their children’s overall exposure to the news, so it isn’t a constant, 24/7 feed.

“Try to model behaviors where your kids learn that staying informed is important, but consuming information by the hour is not healthy, and can lead us to feeling some anxiety,” Catchings told us.

6. Leave the Door Open for Continuing Conversations

Just because you talked about it doesn’t mean your kids’ anxiety or concerns are over. Make it clear that you’re open to continuing this conversation at any time, and look for nonverbal cues that they’re struggling. Changes in their behavior, sleep and eating habits are big signals.

If, for example, they’re too scared to go to bed, are afraid to go to school or are still stressed after a few days, get help for your child sooner rather than later, Jane Ripperger-Suhler, a child psychiatrist at Seton’s Texas Child Study Center, told the Austin American-Statesman. You may want to set up a meeting with a counselor or therapist to help them work through the anxiety and trauma they’re feeling. (This is especially important if your child has experienced trauma in the past.)

7. Invite Teens to Take Action

As the National Association of School Psychologists noted, high schoolers are likely to want to have an active role in shaping their community and making their school safer, and that’s amazing. If so, talk to them about their ideas and what that looks like. Are they interested in starting a club at school to promote inclusion and provide more social-emotional learning and support? Do they want to write to their lawmakers to push for legislative changes? From there, you can discuss what steps need to be taken, and how you can support them.

Additional Resources for Parents:

6 Strategies for Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety

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Candace Davison oversees PureWow's food and home content, as well as its franchises, like the PureWow100 review series and the Happy Kid Awards. She’s covered all things lifestyle...