A Mom's View: How To Talk To Anxious Kids About School Shootings

Photo: iStock

How can you discuss the thing you fear most as a parent?

One of the greatest challenges of parenting is explaining the inexplicable to children. Fostering calm is difficult when children are hijacked by fear — and remaining clear and confident is a feat when we are overwhelmed by our own fears.

This is especially true for kids who struggle with anxiety — currently about 30 percent of all kids.

The horrifying reality of school shootings brings us face to face with this inherent contradiction in parenting. It throws everyone, both children and adults, off balance. Sure, we know that terrible things happen. But when it feels particularly close to home — and to school — it's difficult to know how to broach this topic, and how much to be open about with kids at various ages.

Here is one mom's approach — mine — when it comes to talking to kids about school shootings:

For young children under 10:

1. Try not to talk about traumatic events, whether public or private, in earshot of your kids. The constant blanket of gloom and doom that dominates daily news does not nurture them.

2. Ask them to tell you their understanding of the current event. Don't provide any more information than they need to know.

3. Very often, your children will find ways to think about things that reduce anxiety for them, so be matter-of-fact if you feel the need to correct your child's understanding of the event. Be aware that accuracy may not always be in their best interest.

4. Sometimes, you may not know what is upsetting to your kids. If you think something is bothering them, pose questions and try to keep them open: "What are you thinking about these days?" or "What kinds of things did your class discuss today during school?" 

5. If you notice changes in behavior, like an increased need for control, or the voicing of new fears, don't ignore them. If the behavior continues after some conversations, consider consulting a counselor.

For children over 10:

1. Refer to the list for Young Children — go with your instincts as to whether your child might still be emotionally better suited to that category.

2. Consider having a conversation about what they might do in a similar scenario. Validate their thoughts and fears. They might feel guilty about wanting to escape, or emboldened to want to play the hero. Try not to tell them how to feel — just give them a safe space to express those feelings.

4. Kids don't want to "rat out" their friends, so they don't know how to handle it when a friend is in serious emotional trouble. Talk about what they can do if they are worried about other kids, and how you can help. (My kids find comfort in knowing that I'll always respect their confidentiality, unless someone's health is in danger.)

For children of any age:

1. Don't pretend nothing's happened. Respond to questions and concerns directly, matter-of-factly and age-appropriately. 

2. If you are put on the spot by a child's comment or question, tell them you want to think about how to respond and remember to talk about it later!

3. Manage your own anxiety around the issue, and be conscious of what you're communicating. Kids smell fear. They reflect your emotions, even if you think you're hiding them. Be aware of your body language and tone of voice. If you need a break to stay level-headed, take it.

4. Address your own fears around your children being harmed, or potentially harming others. Reach out for help if you have concerns. Constant worry will dampen your relationships and stress out your kids.

5. Whenever there is a violent crime, try not to demonize the perpetrators to the point that you dehumanize them. Find compassion. People must be quite ill or tormented to commit heinous crimes. 

All of these points — especially the last one — are difficult. But there is also an opportunity here. We can teach our kids that everyone needs help sometimes. That everyone struggles. And that when people who face significant problems don't get the help they need, things can spiral dangerously out of control.

Elaine Taylor-Klaus and Diane Dempster, founders of ImpactADHD.com, teach/write about practical strategies to parents of “complex” kids with ADHD and related challenges. To help your kids find the motivation to get anything done, download their free parent’s guide, The Parent’s Guide to Motivating Your Complex Child.

This article was originally published at Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.