Tragedy in Florida: Tips for talking to children about school shootings

School Shooting Florida
In this frame grab from video provided by WPLG-TV, students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., evacuate the school following a shooting, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018.

We are faced with yet another school shooting in Florida with at least 17 dead and many injured, including both staff and students. Our heart goes out to the victims and their families – losing a child or family member in this manner is unimaginable. Social media is already running rampant as parents, schools, and children are fearful and wonder what they should do if they ever find themselves in a similar situation. As school shootings seem to be increasing in frequency, these conversations are becoming more necessary.

Handling social media

During a critical incident, such as a school shooting, children are understandably on their phones. In Florida, some children were texting loving messages to family members. While that is understandable, it is important to have conversations with children about what not to do. For example, explain to children that posting videos of those who are injured can be devastating to families who don’t yet know that perhaps their own child is injured or even dead.

Further, posting graphic images increases the traumatizing potential for other children. There is no reason to unnecessarily expose others to the violence. In the same light, it is important for parents to monitor what your children are watching and to limit viewing of horrific events. Vicarious traumatization is real and can happen by viewing too many graphic images online. As this is also true for adults, take this opportunity to model behavior by restricting your own viewing of potentially traumatizing pictures and videos.

Finally, when law enforcement teams are on the scene, their first priority is to find and either capture or take down the shooter before more lives are lost. It is common for students to take videos of law enforcement from their classrooms. For example, students in a third floor classroom may see officers on a roof below searching for the perpetrator. Please realize and have conversations with your children that if they post these videos, they may be informing perpetrators as to the location of officers. This can infringe upon law enforcement’s ability to capture the shooter which could lead to even more deaths.

What to say to your children

One of the most important things to do is make time to talk to your child, according to the National Association for School Psychologists. We know that teens often prefer to talk their friends, but reinforce to them that you are available. You know your child best, so use language that is developmentally appropriate and understandable to your child. Be careful not to make assumptions about how your child is feeling. Instead, asking questions, such as “What is your biggest concern in hearing about this incident?” will open the door to communication. Further, help children understand common symptoms of distress, including difficulties sleeping or eating, and ask them to share with you if they are struggling.

Along with standard fire drills, many schools are beginning to do active shooter drills. These should not be scary events for children, but provide them a sense of control. Further, ensure children know to go to an adult should they ever feel threatened, see weaponry or trespassers in the building, or hear of threatening statements, either in person or online that are cause for alarm. Many schools are also moving toward more trauma-informed approaches due to the realization that many perpetrators of violence have experienced trauma in their own lives.

The increase of school shootings is terrifying for everyone. Remember that children feed off of the response of adults, so while it is great to model appropriate expression our own confusion, dismay, and sadness, it is important that adults maintain control. Adults can also model good coping strategies and self-care such as eating well, exercising, and sleeping. Finally, as consistency and normalcy help children feel safe, keep routines and structure as typical as possible. It is unimaginable that our children must face the tragedy of mass murder in schools. Let’s try to make them feel as safe as possible in our loving arms.

Terri A. Erbacher, Ph.D. is an Clinical Associate Professor at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.