What You Need To Know When Talking To Your Kids About School Shootings, From A Doctor

Six tips for talking to children about gun violence at school. Because it's not going away.

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A friend of mine called me one day in a state of distress. His daughter was locked down in her elementary school classroom the day before after a teenager threatened to shoot up the campus. Fear and panic-stricken, he sat by his phone getting updates from her teachers throughout the day.

The kids were safe, hiding under their desks for hours until police could safely evacuate the campus. Luckily, all teachers and students got out of the school physically unharmed. Emotionally, however, everyone is left with lingering scars.


This kind of terror and tragedy is almost unimaginable for most of us. If you’ve been directly affected by a threat, you may be left in a state of shock, paralyzed by fear and anxiety. Even if a school shooting hasn’t directly impacted you or your children, it’s next to impossible to avoid the ongoing news reports that document gun violence.

This leaves many parents unsure of how to talk to their kids about such an emotion-laden and deeply disturbing topic.

RELATED: 15 Ways To Build Conversational Trust With Your Kids & Help Them Open Up


For any of you struggling to find ways to talk to your kids about gun violence in school, here are six suggestions to start the conversation.

1. Plan what you want to share.

Given that talking about school shootings is such a difficult topic, it really helps to think about what you do and don’t want to share in advance. This will be largely based on your child’s age and development ability to process difficult life situations.

In general, telling them any of the horrific details of school shootings is not necessary or helpful but making clear that you want them to feel safe talking to you about school violence is important.

If you do share any of the facts, tell the truth at a level they can understand without giving too many details that might scare them.

2. Choose a quiet time and space.

Set the stage for your conversation by selecting a time and space that can be uninterrupted, calm, and safe. You want your child to have your full and undivided attention without distractions.


3. Listen to them first.

Start the conversation in an open-ended way. Make clear that you’re interested in what your child has heard, what they’re thinking about, and how they’re feeling. Let them share in a safe space with you.

You may want to start by saying something like, “Have you heard anything about kids getting hurt at school?” or “A really bad thing happened at a school today… have you heard about anything like that?”

If your child was directly affected, start with something like, “What happened today was a really big deal. How are you feeling about it? Can you tell me about your experience?” Then listen.

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4. Reflect back to them.

As your child shares with you, try to validate their experience by reflecting back on what you hear them saying. Elaborate on anything meaningful with follow-up questions or statements like, “That sounds really scary” or “It sounds like your teacher really handled that well to help you stay safe.”

5. Share your feelings.

After your child has shared anything they’d like to, it’s helpful to share your thoughts and feelings about the situation. Share that you’re angry, scared, or dumbfounded.

You’re one of the greatest supports and role models for your child, so share your internal experience—it shows that you’re human, you care, and you’re in this together with your child.

6. Be reassuring.

Be very clear at the end of your talk that you, their school, and your community want to keep everyone safe. That you’re willing to talk about this anytime your child wants to and that, if they ever feel unsafe at school, you want to know about it.


As school shootings and threats become increasingly common, it’s important to have continued conversations with our children about it.

Helping them express their feelings, unpack their experiences, and express our own outrage is important to help us all build resilience.

RELATED: 5 Secretly Effective Ways To Talk To Your Kids (So They Actually Listen)


Cortney Warren, Ph.D., ABPP, is a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV). She is also the author of Letting Go of Your Ex and Lies We Tell Ourselves.