How To Talk To Kids About School Shootings & Process The Grief We're All Experiencing

Photo: Christine Ruddy / 
B&W photo of school shooting tribute at the Capitol

Ten days after the racially-motivated shooting in Buffalo, New York at a grocery store and ten years after the unspeakable tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, Americans are once again dealing with a horrific mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

This small community west of San Antonio will be forever marked by this unspeakable event: parents, siblings, friends, extended family members, coworkers, and neighbors whose lives will never be the same.

My thoughts, my heart, and my grief are with the people of Uvalde.

This tragedy has also undoubtedly reminded thousands of people who lost loved ones to similar atrocities: Parkland High School, Sandy Hook, Columbine High School, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Charleston, the list goes on and on. 

It’s nearly impossible not to be affected by this devastating school shooting news. In fact, it may be related to a biological response based on vicarious trauma.

RELATED: ‘I Hope You Didn’t Feel Any Pain’ — Families Of Uvalde Shooting Victims Share Heartbreaking Tributes Online

Although I live in Massachusetts, far from Texas, my heart aches for the Uvalde community. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said Tuesday night, “This is not inevitable.”

We have become too used to the tragedies.

A mother who lost a child a few years in a similar shooting commented that it is beyond insanity for us to continue to witness these events and offer our sympathy without any real policy change. It is inhuman.

But, as these events re-occur, so many of us have become inured to these murders and to other atrocities of war and hardship across the globe. Our brains don’t have pathways to make sense of so many senseless deaths.

Many people feel hopeless, frustrated, and powerless as we hear about the mass shootings occurring again and again. Despite the research that “84 percent of voters, including 77 percent of Republicans, support requiring all gun purchasers to go through a background check,” no legislation has been passed.

RELATED: How Kids Heal From Trauma When Working With A Therapist

How do we understand this ourselves? How do we explain these shootings to children?

The issues raised by such horrors force us to examine ourselves as a country and our values as people. We feel shocked and afraid. We share the pain and grief we see.

We are not sure how to respond because it is confusing. We reach out for comfort and to offer solace. We talk to each other. We discuss our emotions, our thoughts, and our perceptions as a step towards healing. We pray, we make food, we donate clothes, we offer hugs. 

Here are some tips for how to talk to kids about school shootings — and how to process the grief together.

RELATED: Why The Myth Of The 'Bullied School Shooter' Is Dangerously Inaccurate

1. Process your reactions first.

You may feel shut down, incredulous, enraged, or devastated. If you are a survivor yourself or you know someone who is, you may be overwhelmed with re-experiencing your own trauma.

Talk about what’s going for you with someone who cares, who understands, and who will offer you the support you need. This may be a partner, a relative, a friend, a co-worker or a counselor.

Due to the widespread and immediate accessibility of news through social media, you may need to limit the time you spend in front of a screen to titrate your exposure.

Consider doing something that will reduce your powerlessness such as volunteering to send food or working with an organization towards a cause you believe in. Getting active and participating is a great antidote to feeling alienated.

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2. Shield young children and share facts with older ones.

Think about what you want to say and how you would like to present information to your child based on their age and developmental level. Children under the age of 10 can be frightened by headlines about school shootings or disturbing images related to this story or the war in Ukraine.

Nonetheless, they might hear the news from their peers. Since kids are naturally curious and will read things that are left around, put away newspapers or magazines with potentially upsetting images or taglines.

Give them a one- or two-sentence summary about what has happened so they are informed but not scared. Answer their questions honestly but not extensively: They don't need to know a lot of details that could upset them. Try not to watch or listen to the news while they are within earshot.

If they hear about what happened from other people or express distress about it, ask them questions and be available to talk when they approach you. You might want to remind them that they are safe right now and you and their teachers are working together to keep them safe.

Listening to their feelings and validating their concerns without solving them helps foster the resilience they need now and later in life. 

RELATED: How To Overcome Past Trauma So It Doesn't Destroy Your Current Relationship

3. Be straight with middle and high schoolers.

Ask them what they have heard and how they feel about it. Use open-ended questions such as “What do you think about what has happened?” or “What types of concerns do you have about how this could relate to your life?”

Be prepared that they may not want to discuss this at all right now but have a delayed reaction and will bring it up next week.

Avoid oversharing details and again, monitor the amount of news they are exposed to — being mindful that they might get their news from messaging apps or social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

They may search for things online without your knowledge but you also don't have to have the news on in the background while you are cooking or eating dinner. We want to limit the possibility of any secondary trauma which can occur by seeing disturbing images repeatedly.

Listen to what they have to say and validate their feelings. They know that you can't fix things. What they want is a supportive place to discuss emotions and explore ideas. Talk about ways to get involved as many teens like to solve problems and move into action.

RELATED: If You’ve Been Keeping Your Childhood Trauma A Secret, You Need To Read This

4. Acknowledge bravery.

Counteract all of the negative and frightening information by focusing on examples of courage and our common humanity. This will reduce despair and help you (and your kids) manage the fear and anxiety.

There are people who have said and done amazing things to help others during the massacre in Uvalde, the war in Ukraine, and other atrocities. There are people who have survived the losses of loved ones from past mass shootings who are talking about their experiences to help others, and who have started foundations and organizations dedicated to ending gun violence in schools and communities.

They are our heroes: They manifest the type of humane, compassionate values we aim to live by and want our children to emulate. Share their stories– with your kids, with your friends, with anyone who will listen. Their courage is an inspiration for all of us.

Today, my thoughts and prayers are not only with the families in Uvalde but also with families everywhere who have lost a beloved son, daughter, spouse, parent, or relative. May the memory of those lost be a blessing to us all.

RELATED: 10 Ways To Help Children Cope With Tragedy

Dr. Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is an international lecturer and workshop facilitator and has focused her work on ADHD, anxiety, learning differences and mental health challenges. For more information, visit her website.

This article was originally published at Dr. Saline's website. Reprinted with permission from the author.