When Your Child is Afraid of Shootings

This is a real post written by a real child on Reddit. Remember when fear of school was about failure? If you’re like me, you really want to pull this child in close and talk it out with them. These are heavy issues this kid is carrying. They’re not alone in their worry and may be drawing some unhelpful and harmful conclusions about society and people as a result. According to a survey conducted by the Children’s Defense Fund, 33% of children between 6 and 17 years of age and 36% of parents report having worries about school shootings, with just 59% reporting they felt safe at school. African American children are even more affected, with only 42% saying they felt safe. That’s a huge number of kids being impacted by persistent existential anxiety.

Most parents wish children did not have to deal with the knowledge of these events. Unfortunately with the ubiquity of social media, it is highly unlikely that your child will not learn of them. Even in early elementary school, some children are given unrestricted access to the internet and they will share what they see. Senseless violence is one of the hardest things people of all ages have to process. How do we as parents help our children to process something that is so hard for us adults to process?

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has a vast amount of resources around Terrorism and Violence, some specifically geared to school shootings and some geared toward mass shootings elsewhere in the community.

–As an aside, the NCTSN is a wonderful resource for helping to understand and support all kinds of trauma recovery in children, including bullying, community violence, complex trauma, disasters, domestic violence, medical trauma, sexual abuse, and grief. You can find all these topics on the left hand side of page I linked to above.–

The first thing you are going to want to do is get the facts yourself. Know what happened, how many people were injured and killed, and what is known about the shooter and their motivations. Find reputable sources. The purpose here is not to share this information with your children, but to be able to correct any inaccurate and emotionally inflammatory things your child may have heard.

There’s a lot of debate going on right now about the value of even talking about the shooter. Whenever we seek to understand their motivations, we also give them a platform for their hatred. We don’t necessarily need to talk about what drove this particular person, because whatever motivated them, their actions are abominable. The important thing to reassure your kids is that these individuals are extremely rare. The media makes mass shootings seem like they are suddenly proliferating, but they remain under 1% of gun violence in the United States. However, your child may have heard things about the shooter and their motivations and it is critical to unpack those things with your child. Regardless of whether the issues your child raises are even related to what happened, they need to process and make sense of them.

These are on-going conversations, with varying levels of sharing being appropriate depending on the child’s age and what information they’ve already been exposed to.

-For a breakdown on how to engage these conversations in the aftermath of a shooting, the NCTSN has this Tip sheet.

-For tips on how to manage media coverage, they have this Tip sheet.

-For tips on how to restore a sense of safety after a shooting, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress has this Tip sheet.

If you’re not sure if your child is particularly affected, this article from the Child Mind Institute talks a little bit about how unhealthy anxiety can develop after hearing about a shooting and directly addresses school shooting drills.

For an overview of how to address children’s irrational fears in general, this is an excellent set of tips that also apply to conversations around shootings anxiety.

Remember, the world overall is getting safer, people are overall loving and compassionate, and communities overall mobilize to protect, tend, and support each other.