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November 1, 2013

What to tell a child about school shootings

NORMAN — A radio talk show recently called to ask how parents should explain school shootings to their kids.

My answer: It depends. I prefer, for the most part, for parents to say nothing unless their children ask questions. And then, when a child asks, for parents to say as little as possible. My rule of thumb has always been to give children only the information they need, when the absolutely need it.

An aside: The selectivity of this question says more about the media’s tendency to create drama than any real need on the part of children. For example, when 10 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 anxiety. After all, it is a given that the parent in question is explaining because she is anxious, and it also is 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 those circumstances, the response should be reassuring (“Your school is safe”) and brief because lots of words can confuse a child and lead, again, to anxiety.

Something along these lines, perhaps: “There are 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?”

Commonsense dictates that the parent should say, “You should follow instructions from your teacher. Do what your teacher tells you to do.”

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