How to Talk With Kids About Shootings

I was in Buffalo this past weekend speaking at a church.  As I'm sure you've seen on the news, there was a shooting there at a local grocery store. 

In the church where I was speaking, there were several people who personally knew some of the people that were killed. 

One of victims was a precious senior citizen lady.  She came to that grocery store every Saturday to buy food for the homeless. 

The world we live in can be a scary place.  Today's kids live with the reality that they could be shot at school, in a store, in a movie theater, at a concert and yes...even at church.  All of these are places where shootings have taken place in recent years. 

When kids see or hear about shootings, it can cause anxiety, fear, grief, helplessness and anger.  It is important that we guide them toward stability and trust in God. Here are some key tips you can use when talking with kids about tragic events like this shooting. 

First of all, remember that each child is unique and there is not one way to address tragedies. But here are some tips that can help you and their parents know what to say during times of crisis. 

Examine yourself first.  See how you react before you ask children how they are feeling about this. Young children will be more affected by their parents' and caregivers' distress than by the actual tragedy itself.  They will pick up on your reactions.  Be ready to present yourself in a calm manner. They will be comforted more by your actions than your words. 

Talk about the heroes.  Let them know about the brave people who stepped in to help, even at the cost of their own life.  This will help kids think about the positive things rather than just all the negatives.

Consider their age.  Many psychiatrists recommend avoiding the topic with children who are under the age of 8.  But again, it depends on the child.  Share information based on your child’s individual personality and developmental stage.

Reassure them that it’s all right for them to be upset, and that you’ll do everything you can to protect them from harm. Let them know that you are there to protect them.

Preschoolers - With young children, many doctors recommend to keep the story you tell short and simple. One sentence or two will suffice for anyone under the age of 6.

Elementary children will ask many questions.  Encourage them to ask questions and answer their questions directly. 

Decide ahead of time how much you will share with them.  Also, decide how much you are going to allow your children to see in the news.  Images are hard to erase once they are in your child's mind.  Too much exposure can cause increased fear or anxiety.  

They may become clinging or whiny, have difficulty sleeping, or start wetting their beds. Reassure them that they are safe with you and these symptoms should reside.

Pre-Teens will probably have already heard about the shooting.  They have immediate news sources with their phones, tablets and other mobile devices.  Start by asking them what they have seen and heard about the tragedy.  Clear up any inaccurate information they may have heard.  Fill in the blanks for them.

Ask them how they are feeling about the tragedy.  It is important to let them express their feelings.

Teenagers.  They are looking for solutions.  They like to collaborate to bring change.  Ask them what you can do together to stand against and help prevent violence.  

In general, all kids want to know 3 things when faced with a tragedy like this shooting.

  1. Am I safe?  
  2. Are the people who take care of me, safe?
  3. How will this event affect my daily life?
I would encourage you to pass this along to the parents in your ministry.  Give them the tools they need to navigate this with their children.