How to talk to your kids about school shootings

KSL, February 15, 2018

SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of Wednesday’s shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead and more than a dozen more injured, mass shootings at schools are once again in America’s spotlight.

The hours and days after any national tragedy — such as Wednesday’s shooting — can be difficult, especially tragedies involving children. It’s also a time when parents likely want to talk to their children about the tragedy.

“I think all parents this morning get up and say, ‘is my kid safe?’” said Doug Goldsmith, executive director at The Children's Center. “These events, tragically, seem to be happening more and more. … These safety concerns are very, very real.”

Here are some tips from local and national experts on how parents and children can talk regarding a tragedy.

Talk about it

Goldsmith said he encourages parents to address the issue, such as asking their child if they have any questions or concerns following Wednesday’s attack.

"Parents need to ask directly about it,” he said. “We can’t protect kids from (not knowing about) it — they all have phones, on their phones, there’s messaging and things coming up that inform on what’s going on. I think parents want to ask, ‘did you have questions about it? Has it been a worry for you? Have you been worried about your safety at school?

“Have those discussions around the dinner table,” he added. “It’s very important.”

While parents may bring up the discussion, Dr. Allison Agliata, a clinical psychologist based in Florida, told NBC News parents should also consider letting their child lead the discussion.

“It is often best to let your child take the lead in asking questions about difficult situations so that you only share what you feel is necessary to satisfy their inquiries,” she told the outlet. “Otherwise, as parents, we tend to either share too little and leave them wondering, or over explain and freak them out.”

Take precautions seriously

One of the things Goldsmith said helps in the time after a tragedy is to become empowered and be prepared for any situation, such as taking drills for any danger at a school seriously.

He said it’s also important for parents to be in-tune with their children. That includes parents checking in on their children and also asking about classmates to “be aware — if they can — of the circle around their children.”

“Sometimes there are clues within those circles about problems that are happening, whether it’s a child that’s depressed and suicidal or a kid that’s getting into trouble with drugs,” he said. “When we talk about how it takes a village, parents need to be a part of that village. I think that empowerment can help contain the anxiety of what’s happening in our communities.”

Any threats, Goldsmith adds, should be taken seriously and reported quickly.

“In today’s world, anything that is said that suggests anything about killing must be acted on immediately,” he said. “With children’s access and availability to lethal weapons, we have to take any issues like that very seriously.”

‘It didn’t happen here’

There were more than 91,000 traditional public schools in the United States as of 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Education. With that in mind, as frequent as school shootings have been this year, it’s still a small sliver of American schools affected.

That’s why Goldsmith said he doubts many children chose to skip school for safety issues Thursday because of Wednesday’s shooting in Florida. However, if there were, he said it’s always a good reminder that school shootings are still rare.

“It would be really important for parents to say, ‘you know, that didn’t happen here. Schools are prepared for these kinds of things. It’s a tragedy,’” Goldsmith said.

He added that the message is also good for anxious parents to remember because with school shootings in the forefront, it can be stressful for parents thinking it could happen to their child.

“This is hard on parents,” he said. “Everyone is dreading this phone call that something terrible is happening at your child’s school.”

The American Psychological Association suggests it’s also important for parents to remind their children there are people at schools working to keep them safe.

“Parents should acknowledge to children that bad things do happen, but also reassure them with the information that many people are working to keep them safe, including their parents, teachers and local police,” the association wrote.

Seek help, if needed

Goldsmith said if a child is afraid to go to school because of safety concerns or have been struggling with “bad thoughts,” such as hurting themselves or others, it’s important to seek help.

Parents or children can call their local mental health center or psychiatric hospital just to make sure everything is OK.