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Talking to kids about school shootings: A Dallas psychologist says validate, support and reassure

Visitors walk past a make-shift memorial at Robb Elementary School, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. Students are returning to campuses for the first time since the shootings at Robb Elementary where two teachers and 19 students were killed. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/AP
Visitors walk past a make-shift memorial at Robb Elementary School, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. Students are returning to campuses for the first time since the shootings at Robb Elementary where two teachers and 19 students were killed. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Given high-profile school shootings in Uvalde or recent ones in Dallas and Arlington, Dr. Jessica Gomez, a licensed psychologist and Executive Director with Dallas-based Momentous Institute, tells KERA's Sam Baker parents shouldn't wait for children to ask questions.

When to have the conversation

They're having this conversation at school, whether it's on the playground, whether it's with the teachers, they're going to hear about it the way that the world is built with communication and just excessive information. It's just assumed that your child is going to hear about it. So you really want to lead the conversation.

At what age, though, is it appropriate to bring this up at all?

You know your child better than anyone. So start there. The conversation is going to look very different for a three-year-old than for a 15-year-old. So trust your gut.

Children are sponges. So if you know that your child is around others or is in the community or after-school care in a classroom, I would have the conversation then and there. So typically around three years old.

So then let's say for a five-year-old, how would you bring up this topic and what would you say?

I'm going to assume that there are going to be different changes in the classroom, and in the school conversations. So I would start by first telling a parent to check in with yourself, how are you managing this?

And then always engaging your child with curiosity is the second thing. What do they know? What have they heard? And then stick with the facts, but in a developmentally appropriate way. They don't need all the details and reassure them that they're safe.

Ten or 12?

I think that you can lean in with a little bit more curiosity as to what have they heard. What do they know? See what they might have heard already from their friends and then guide them with the facts again. So it's going to be the same. But every child is different because some five-year-olds might have more curiosity than a ten-year-old.

What I'm seeing a lot of is kids saying, you know, I'm fine, I don't want to talk about it. So then just keep an eye on them. They might not be ready, given how overwhelming and anxiety-provoking this can be. I'm seeing a lot of numbness as well, and, with some kiddos, indications of they're not ready to talk about it right now.

And so as a parent, I advise parents to keep an eye out for any changes in their child's behavior, their sleep, and how they're taking care of themselves. Are they isolating? Same thing that teachers are going to look out for: are their changes academically, how they're interacting socially.

But at 15, there can be a lot more details without getting into fear-building.

By fear building, you mean what?

Reassure them of safety protocols or things that we're doing to keep you safe at home, at school, and in the community. And the reality is there is no 100% safety proof in the world we live in today. So it's also not unrealistic. But here are the steps you can take.

It's not only important what you say, but that is very important to listen to what the child is saying?

That's why I call it engaging with curiosity. Ask more questions and listen attentively. What do they already know? What have they heard?

The other layer I would add is paying attention to how you're approaching the child. Are you anxious and overwhelmed? I've had a lot of tearful parents, rightfully so, and it's okay to model some of those emotions as well. But we want to take care of ourselves because we're the container for children. Children look to us.

And is it necessary to remind them that it's okay to be afraid or to be scared or fearful?

You certainly want to validate whatever emotions come up for your child while also reassuring them at the same time that you are doing as a parent, as a school, and as a community. What is within your reach to keep them safe? You also want to prepare the child, so validate, support, and reassure.


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Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.