Schools in the United States have become more prepared for mass shootings over the last two decades, and that has meant learning how to talk with kids about active shooters and “bad guys” on school campuses. While the incidence of on-campus shootings is extremely low, they’re something many teachers and parents have prepared for.
It can be particularly disturbing for young children to see kids their own age among the victims of a shooting, as when the face of 6-year-old Stephen Romero spread across the news as a victim of the 2019 mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
Now, Wednesday's mass shooting at a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority rail yard in San Jose has once again prompted a conversation about how to talk with kids about tragedy.
And it's not just shootings that can impact children. California's increasingly devastating wildfires, and the toll they take upon local lives and homes, can also be a source of real concern for young people exposed to scary-sounding news and alarming imagery.
“The most helpful thing for parents to share with their kids is that these events are rare and that adults are there to protect them,” said Dr. Stephen Brock, professor of psychology at CSU Sacramento. “We can’t deny the reality of these things, but kids need to be reassured with these facts.”
Some kids find out about the news by seeing it themselves or hearing it discussed at school, home or in their communities. Young children can especially be harmed by this exposure, so experts recommend restricting their access to traumatic news. Kids old enough to have smartphones will likely get misinformation on the internet and social media, so it’s even more important for parents and caregivers to support their kids.
Here are some key steps they can take:
Remind Kids That They Are Safe
Children need to be reassured by their caregivers that they are safe. The American Psychological Association says, above all, reassure:
“... reassure your children that you will do everything you know how to do to keep them safe and to watch out for them. Reassure them that you will be available to answer any questions or talk about this topic again in the future. Reassure them that they are loved.”
Limit Young Children’s Exposure to Traumatic News
Young children have less developed skills to separate facts from fears, so psychologists recommend minimizing a child’s exposure to traumatic news.
“When kids see the news, even if they are not a resident of [the affected place], they have the mistaken perception that they could be shot at any time,” said Brock. “For little ones, turn [the news] off.”
And sometimes, that fear is transferred to children through adult behavior. If adults are behaving in an anxious or fearful manner, kids will pick up on that, especially those in primary grades and younger.
“Kids will look to adults to see how scared they should be,” said Brock.