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How to talk to kids about school shootings, according to experts

Experts weigh in with advice for how to talk to kids in the aftermath of the latest news about another school shooting tragedy.

How to talk to kids about school shootings, according to experts

It’s only March, and so far this year in the U.S., there have been 89 school shootings, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database, a website founded by researcher David Riedman, which defines “school shootings” as any shooting at a K-12 school when a gun is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time or day of the week. Today, according to Reuters, several more victims are being reported dead, including at least three children, in yet another shooting at a Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee. These are the times in which we’re living. 

That being said, the frequency of these occurrences and the varying death tolls don’t make these conversations any easier for parents or caregivers. Should you tell your child what happened before they leave for school so they don’t hear about it from friends? Or should you wait for them to come to you? Even with these tragedies becoming more common, there’s still not a cut and dried approach when it comes to talking to kids about school shootings. 

“How and when to talk to kids about these things really is a personal thing,” explains Ali Hamroff Honig, a licensed psychotherapist who works with adolescents at Liz Morrison Therapy in New York. “A lot of it comes down to the child’s age and maturity level, as the depth of the conversation is dependent on both,” she says. “For instance, the actual school shooting is one topic, but depending on where your child is developmentally, the subject of why someone would do such a thing is another subject that warrants another conversation.”

If you aren’t sure how to navigate this awful discussion with kids, you aren’t alone. Here, experts offer advice for how to talk to kids about school shootings and the aftermath. 

Share the news with kids up front — if it feels right 

Deciding whether or not to tell your child about a school shooting is up to you. It’s a personal choice and much of it depends on your child’s age and maturity level. While there’s a good chance young kids can make it through the school day without hearing anything, older kids will likely hear something.

“If you want to get in front of things, that’s your right as a parent,” says Chad Steele, a licensed professional counselor who primarily works with children and adolescents at Thriveworks in Lynchburg, Virginia. “That said, you don’t need to go up to your kids and say: ‘Hey, did you hear what happened?’” 

If you want to prepare your child, try to do it in as natural a way as possible, Steele says. Don’t sit them down for a lecture, but instead mention that you “had the news on” and then explain what happened. “But if you think bringing it up will cause them more anxiety and make things worse than it otherwise would, it’s OK not to address it,” he says, unless or until they bring it up to you.

Be honest 

If your child is the one to bring the news up to you (or you bring it up to them), don’t lie, says Dr. Victoria Brady, a clinical psychologist practicing in Manhattan and Millburn, New Jersey. “Be honest within reason,” Brady explains, adding that “the younger the child, the [fewer] details should be shared.”

At the same time, the American Psychological Association (APA) notes that if your child has “misinformation or misperceptions” about the event, you should “gently correct” them once they’re done talking.


The No. 1 thing parents should do, according to Steele, is listen. “If you talk to your child or your child comes home with questions and is ready to talk about things, listen to them,” he says. The key for parents is taking their child’s lead and not adding anything — details or your own anxiety — to the conversation that will increase distress.

“In some cases, kids will share that they think what happened was absolutely horrible and that will be the end of it,” Steele says. “If that’s your child’s reaction, you can leave it at that. If they have questions, answer them at their level.” 

Talk during play or everyday activities

Steele notes that, no matter what point you decide to intervene, don’t sit your child down, lecture-style. Pick the right time or, depending on their age, situation. “A good way to communicate with kids is during play,” he explains. “Maybe have a conversation during a board game or sit down with your kid to play video games for a little while.” 

The APA adds that other times that are good for a conversation with kids, are “when riding in the car, before dinner or at bedtime.”

Information gather 

Parents and caregivers should also try to “information gather,” in order to best support them, notes Steele. “Ask them what they think; find out where their head is,” he explains. “Don’t make it an interrogation, but find out how many people they’ve already spoken to and if they personally feel safe in school, etc.,” he explains. “And then go from there.”

“If your child tells you there’s something specific that’s making them anxious or nervous, find out why and collaboratively problem solve,” Steele continues. “And at the same time, if they start doing out-of-the-ordinary things, like laying in bed in the morning instead of getting up, don’t snap at them. Instead ask them what’s going on so you can help.” Parents should “get curious, not furious,” he says. 

Reassure them the world is generally a safe place 

Parents and caregivers should reassure children that they’re safe, notes Brady. “Explain that although bad things sometimes happen in the world, the probability of it happening to them or anyone they know is incredibly low,” she explains. 

Point out the positivity and safety measures at school 

If your child starts worrying about something happening at their school, let them know that it’s a safe place. “Reassure children that their schools take many precautions to protect the students, so they don’t have to worry,” says Brady. “We, as the parents, can be the ones worrying. Kids should not carry that burden.” 

Honig adds, “Reiterate that school is a safe place and that their teachers are there to protect them. Focus on the fact that all kids go to school and it’s a happy place, where people go to learn and grow.”

Steele notes that parents can personalize the conversation, as well. “Ask your child if they trust their teacher,” he says. “Likely, they’ll say ‘yes,’ so then let them know that their teacher’s number one job is to keep them safe. You can then go through some of the people who work at the school by name — security guards, counselors, etc. — and let the child know that all of them are there to support them and keep them safe.” 

Take breaks

The world is plugged in 24/7 these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s smart — or healthy — to have the news on constantly or repeatedly refresh your feed and then debrief your partner, especially in front of kids. Constant exposure to this news, the APA notes, can “heighten [kids’] anxiety and fears,” as can trying to “fill in the gaps” when they hear bits of hushed adult conversations. 

Look for red flags 

Honig notes that any “sudden changes in behavior” can be a sign that your child is unusually stressed or anxious. Here are a few things to look for:

  • They’ve become more isolated in their room.
  • They’re not showing the same enthusiasm for school or activities. 
  • They’ve withdrawn from friends.
  • They stop doing their homework. 

“Also, keep in mind, if this is occurring after news of a school shooting, that doesn’t mean you need to run to a therapist immediately,” Honig says. “First, check in as a parent and see if they open up. A second step can be having them speak with a school counselor. If they’re not opening up, the behavior is continuing or if they ask, seek the help of a professional.”