The nation’s attention is now focused on Maryland as the home of the most recent school shooting. Today, at least three students were injured at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County.
As the story continues to evolve in the media, parents are faced with the difficult decision of what to say to our kids.
The reality is that there is no one way to have this conversation and we don’t always even have to have the conversation. What we say, when we say it and how we say it depends on our child’s age, maturity level and temperament. And, as parents, we also have to think about what our child may hear from the news, from older siblings or neighbors, and from their friends.
Most national experts agree that children under 8 should be shielded from the story unless they are directly impacted by it or exposed to the aftermath. Here are a few thoughts about addressing the topic with older students.
- First, process your own emotions before you talk with your child. As a parent, this is scary and we may feel vulnerable, angry or have other strong reactions.
- Plan what you want to say to your child, thinking specifically about what you want them to take away from the conversation.
- Reassure your child by highlighting what the school and the people in the school do to keep students safe. As details unfold, consider telling the stories of the heroes.
- Address images as well as words if your child has seen photos or video in news coverage. Balance the scary photos with positive images of safety officers, school officials and other heroes who help keep students safe.
- For elementary school students, keep the story brief — just a sentence or two about what happened — and then take your cues from your child’s questions. Note your child may ask questions right away, or may come back to you after having some time to think about what they’ve learned.
- For middle and high school students, start by asking what they’ve already heard. In today’s quick news and social media culture, odds are that they’ve already heard about the situation. Let them share their thoughts and feelings with you, and use the conversation as an opportunity to share your values and thoughts on the topic. And, consider discussing potential solutions or actions. You may even want to connect the conversation to the “walk outs” and “step ups” that many students participated in or heard about earlier this month.
- Recognize that students of all ages will process the news in their own way and in their own time. A student who is already anxious, who worries about school or who has experienced trauma may feel greater anxiety, need more time to talk and require extra reassurance about their own safety.
Sadly, our nation’s recent history of school shootings have led to the development of extensive guides on how to talk to children and youth about school violence. Here are a few additional resources to guide your conversation including information developed by Maryland’s Children’s Mental Health Matters Campaign*:
CMHM Fact Sheet on Wellbeing & Resiliency
CMHM Fact Sheet on Trauma
CHMH Fact Sheet on Traumas (Spanish)
At the end of the day, no one knows your child better than you. Review the resources that are out there, make your own decision and do what’s best for your child.
*The Children’s Mental Health Matters! Campaign is a collaboration of the Mental Health Association of Maryland (MHAMD) and the Maryland Coalition of Families (MCF) supported by the Maryland Department of Health – Behavioral Health Administration. The Campaign goal, with partners across the state, is to raise public awareness of the importance of children’s mental health. For more information, please visit www.ChildrensMentalHealthMatters.org.