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What mental health experts say to their kids about school shootings

How to help your kids feel safe when their world feels out of control.
A woman prays in the grass outside the Alamo Gym where parents wait to reunite with their kids following a shooting at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018, in Santa Fe, Texas.Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle via AP

Like mass shootings in general, school shootings have gone from being a rare tragedy to a tragic reality. Already in 2018 there have been more than a dozen instances of gun violence in U.S. schools, including today's deadly shooting in Santa Fe, Texas and the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida that claimed the lives of 17 students and faculty members. These shootings and their aftermath leave many parents scrambling for words: How can you possibly explain gun violence to your kids and how to do you talk about it?

I put these questions to mental health experts who just happen to be dealing with these concerns at home. Here are their best strategies to keep the lines of communication open and your own emotions in check.

Have Your Own Support System and Self-Care Rituals

For your own sake and your children’s, it’s critical that you make time to quell your own anxieties before diving into the issue at hand.

“To have these conversations open and honestly you need to take care of yourself as a parent,” says Kristin Wilson, a licensed professional counselor and clinician with a teenage daughter. “Have your own support system in a spouse or friend or another go-to person, so that when you're talking to your child you've already processed through it.”

Wilson adds that she experienced her own scare when her daughter’s school was on lockdown for over six hours due to the possibility of a shooter. She found out on the news, when it was leaked to a local media network.

To have these conversations open and honestly you need to take care of yourself as a parent.

“I was on the phone with my partner and my friends trying to process everything,” she says. “Having your own support group is important as is indulging in self-care so you're not so reactionary. Yoga, mindfulness practice, exercise and really anything you can do to better your mental health is essential, because sadly, this is a reality now.”

Let Your Kids Take the Lead

You may be unsure where to even begin with such a heavy topic. Consider asking your kids what their questions are before you give your two cents.

“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,” says Dr. Allison Agliata, a clinical psychologist, head of an independent middle school in Tampa Bay and the mother of three children ages 12 and younger. “Otherwise, as parents, we tend to either share too little and leave them wondering, or over-explain and freak them out.”

Set a Time to Talk Daily or Weekly With No Screens

Most of the mental health experts I spoke with strongly recommended having screen-free routine family time, and using that time to talk one-on-one with your kids about school shootings and any other issues that may be top of mind. For Wilson, this means a daily check-in at the dinner table.

Consider asking your kids what their questions are before you give your two cents.

“Sometimes my check-in is as simple as, ‘How was school today?’ And other times it’s a more uncomfortable topic about drugs and alcohol or school violence,” says Wilson, adding that this longstanding ritual has enabled her daughter to always count on this time to talk, trusting that it’s a space to discuss both the good and the bad. “If you set the groundwork early, they will naturally come to you with concerns as well as really awesome things.”

And it doesn’t have to be at the dinner table. Christopher Gerhart, a licensed and certified substance abuse counselor finds that he and his preteen daughter have their best talks about serious matters such as gun violence while he walks her to school. Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker talks with her four kids ages 11 and under individually at bedtime.

“For us it's a lot calmer. Our household is chaotic [during the day], but at that time lights are dim. It’s usually about 15 minutes each and they really look forward to it,” Kitley says. Dr. Agliata has found bedtime works best for her family as well adding, “we reflect on the day and they have some one on one time with me to share their thoughts.”

Teach Them How to De-Stress With Breath-Work and Gratitude

The choice to talk deeply to kids at bedtime could have parents asking, “Can’t that create anxious thoughts?” Not if your kids are equipped with de-stressing mechanisms such as deep breathing exercises.

“They lay on the bed, hands on tummy inhaling through their nose, then blowing out like they’re putting out a candle,” says Kitley of the technique she teaches. “And they take five long deep breaths.”

After talking, Kitley also has her kids focus on the stuff they enjoy rather than the stuff they fear.

“I say, ‘think of five things you really loved about your day.’ It’s a way of acknowledging that, yes, bad things happen to good people but let’s be grateful for where we are. It’s not avoiding, but rather validating how they’re feeling and understanding what is our reality right now.”

Encourage Your Kids To Feel Their Feelings

If your child is really upset about this or other issues, that’s okay too. Allow them to experience those feelings rather than to suppress them.

“[My son] is inundated with violent videos being shared on Snapchat of fights at school,” says Lynn Zakeri, a licensed clinical social worker and the mother of two adolescents. “I talked with him recently about allowing himself to have feelings about these videos: be overwhelmed; be worried; be sad; be scared, and then, more importantly, have empathy. These are natural responses. Allow them to happen.”

I focus on what we have control over. I don't make promises I can't keep.

Don’t Make Promises You Can't Keep — But Do Assure Them

Perhaps the most troubling issue for parents is that part of their job is to help their children feel safe in a world that can turn deadly in an instant.

“The truth is, they trust me to keep them safe,” says Zakeri. “I can't succumb to what if’s because they are not practical and they perpetuate anxiety. Instead I focus on what we have control over. I don't make promises I can't keep.”

Zakeri likens this to the sort of talks they have when getting on an airplane. “[Saying] ‘I promise you will be safe’ is very different than, ‘We can only trust what we know for sure which is [X,Y,Z].’”

But perhaps the most important thing you can do in all of this, is what you’re already doing: loving your kids and putting care and time into how you address these frightful facts of life.

“As long as parents are putting thought, energy and love into their conversations, it is unlikely you are going to really mess things up,” says Dr. Agliata, adding that even she wishes she had more definitive answers for her children about why violent situations occur and how we could stop them. But she doesn’t. “Humanity is complicated and so rather than concentrating on the fear of what could happen, my main objective is to instill a sense of power in my children so that they don't let random, single incidents impede their love of life and quest for adventure. There is so much to experience in life that I never want them to take the safe route out of fear.”

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