A radio talk show host called me recently to ask how parents should explain school shootings to their kids. The answer I gave him was that it depends. I recommend, for the most part, that parents say nothing unless their children ask questions. And then, when a child asks, parents should say as little as possible. My rule of thumb has always been to give children only the information they need, when they absolutely need it.
The selectivity of this question says more about the media’s tendency to create drama than any real need on the part of children to know. For example, when ten children are killed in a school bus accident somewhere, no one in the media calls to ask me how parents should explain school bus accidents.
To explain school shootings to a child who has not asked questions about them accomplishes nothing of value and is very likely to cause a sharp spike in the child’s level of anxiety. After all, it’s a given that the parent in question is explaining because he or she is anxious, and it’s also a given that anxious parents precipitate anxiety in children.
The question, then, becomes, What should a parent say about school shootings if a child has heard and expresses worry about them? Under these circumstances, the parent’s response should be reassuring: “Your school is safe.” That’s brief, and brief is the point, because lots of words can confuse a child and lead, again, to anxiety.
Another possible answer—though it’s a bit longer—might be, “There are some people in the world who do bad things. Sometimes these people are bad, and sometimes they’re just confused. This is a very bad thing that’s happened. No one understands these things very well. I certainly don’t.”
What if a child asks what he should do if a shooting occurs at his school?
Common sense dictates that the parent should say, “You should follow your teacher’s instructions. Do whatever your teacher tells you to do.”
What about kidnappings? Shouldn’t parents warn their children about the possibility of a kidnapping?
That’s a special category, because there are things children can do to prevent being kidnapped, and parents need to explain that to them. When I was a kid, my mom warned me about kidnappers. She told me to never get in cars with strangers, allow myself to be led by them, or accept candy from them. That warning saved my life when I was five years old. A man tried to lure me into his car with the promise of a soda if I would direct him to a certain store. Fortunately, because of my mom’s warning and instruction, I immediately turned and ran, and the man sped off.
My mother, who was single at the time, said that she was proud of me for following her instructions. She went around the neighborhood telling other parents what had happened, and also, of course, she called the police. I remember a policeman coming to our house and asking me for a description of the man and his car. I’m sure there was increased vigilance in the neighborhood for the next few weeks, but all the kids were out playing the next day. I’m sure it worried my mother greatly, but she never let on. Thanks, Mom.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.