Talking With Children About School Shootings

Today's kids are growing up knowing they could be injured or even killed in a school shooting at any time.

Look at what has happened in just the first eight weeks of 2018.

January 22: Italy, Texas - A 16-year-old student opened fire with a semi-automatic handgun in the school cafeteria, wounding another student.

January 22:  Gentilly, Lousiana - An unknown person fired shots at students from a vehicle in the school parking lot.  One person was injured.

January 23:  Benton, Kentucky - A 15-year-old student opened fire with a handgun, killing two and injuring 17.

January 25: Mobile, Alabama - A student fired a handgun during a fight with another student.  No injuries reported.

January 26: Dearborn, Michigan - Shots were fired during a fight in the school parking lot.  No injuries reported.

January 31: Philadelphia - A fight during a basketball game resulted in a shooting death outside the school.

And of course, the most recent shooting that resulted in devastating tragedy.

February 14: Parkland, Florida - A 19-year-old former student opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, killing 17 and injuring 14.

As children see these shootings unfold on the news, it can be paralyzing.  It's critical, as children's ministry leaders, that we are available to help children as they try to process these events.  Just as important, if not more important, is our role in equipping parents to know how to walk with their children through these tragedies.

It can be difficult to know what to say and how to respond when kids (and adults) see school shootings unfold.  Let's look at some helpful tips on how to talk with children about this.

Start by finding out what they know.  Listen carefully to find out what they believe happened.  Listen for misinformation and misconceptions.  Listen for fears and worries the child may have.

Protect them from too much information.  Limit their exposure to media coverage.  Remember, even when they are playing with their toys in the same room, they are aware of what is on the television, radio or social media you are engaging in.  Exposure to disturbing images and conversations can heighten children's distress.

Focus more on the child's feelings about the event than on the event itself.  The primary goal is to help children cope with their feelings in a healthy way.

An example is a child asking if it could happen at their school or their parent's workplace.  What the child really wants to know is if they are safe or not.  Go over safety measures and plans you have in place and reassure the child of their safety.

Understand what they can process developmentally.  The goal is to answer their questions without increasing their distress.  It's important to know what kids can process at their age level.
  • Preschoolers need adults to stay calm, use simple words and answer their questions honestly, but with limited detail.  Reassure them that they are safe.  Safety can be communicated not only verbally, but also by keeping them involved in normal, everyday activities.  Children are less likely to experience distress when they keep a normal routine.
  • Elementary children obviously understand more than preschoolers and will want to talk about shootings at greater length.  This doesn't mean you should offer disturbing details.  They need comfort and reassurance of their own safety.  It is also important during this time to give them extra attention.
  • Pre-teens need adults to listen to their thoughts and feelings about the shooting.  They highly value honesty, so it's important to answer their questions that way.  While pre-teens may not be as quick to ask for your help and support, rest assured they need it.
Find ways they can help and expose them to others who are helping.  Children benefit greatly from being able to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  When they see and hear stories of people helping those effected by the shooting, it can help bring healing and reassurance.

Model what you want to see in the children.  Children not only listen to our words, but also model our behavior and emotions.  Express sadness and empathy for the families involved.  Share how you are coping with the tragedy.  Model calmness.  Model peace.  Model trust.  Model patience.  
Don't avoid the hard questions.  Older children may grapple with questions like...
  • Why didn't God stop this from happening?
  • Why didn't God protect the children and adults who were shot?
  • If God loves us, then why do bad things like this happen?
These are questions that all of us have grappled with at times.  It's important to help guide kids through the hard questions that arise from tragedy.

Their future view of God may depend upon it.  Studies show that Gen Z children need to work through these type of questions if their faith is going to be solid and last a lifetime.  Help them find the right answers. 
Emphasize the hope found in Christ.  Help kids see that we live in a world that has been broken and messed up by sin.  As a result, the human experience has pain, suffering, injustices, tragedy and heartbreak.

But in the midst of all of that, we can find hope, peace and encouragement through Christ.  He can bring healing and forgiveness to even the worst of circumstances.  And one day, all things will be made right and we will see and understand more clearly. 

Seek professional help if needed.  It's common for children to feel anxious about a school shooting.  They may have trouble with their behavior and concentration.  It can even cause a change in their appetite or sleep routines.  If this happens and reaches the point where it's interfering with the child's ability to function, you should seek professional help.

May God give each of us wisdom, grace and insight as we talk with children about school shootings.