Why & How To Discuss School Shootings With Our Families
School shootings are every parent’s worst nightmare. There have been 291 school shootings since 2013. They’ve become so common that we, as parents, must discuss school shootings with our families.
It’s a complex subject mired in a variety of perspectives and commentary on the subjects of gun control, school protection, personal freedom, and mental health. The question most tearful parents ask me in my office is, “Where do I begin and what do I say?”
A Spirit Visitation Forces A Discussion About School Shootings
My husband, Franck, and I were preparing lunch at home when I saw what I call “hologram” of a little girl standing on my stairwell. This spirit didn’t move or shake her gaze off me. She was eight years old and I didn’t know who this little girl belonged to and why this spirit was in my home.
As I bustled around the kitchen, I felt uncomfortable by the spirit starring at me, holding a teddy bear in her arm, much like my five year old daughter does these days.
As we sat down at our breakfast table, the discomfort made me squirm in my chair. I looked at my husband and said, “Do you know someone whose child died tragically before the age of ten?”
Franck looked at me quizzically and said, “No.”
He was silent for a moment.
His eyes began to well with tears, his mouth pouted, and his face contorted in grief.
“Well, to be honest,” he said, “All I could think about this morning was the Parkland school shooting, and others like it, and what it must feel like for those parents who lost their children.”
He wept, wiping away the tears.
“They must be feeling so much pain,” he explained, “They just dropped off their children, thinking they were safe. And then, by the end of the day, their children are gone. It’s just horrible.”
I was stunned. I didn’t know my husband was suffering from the news. I just observed him as he expelled his private grief, in mourning and in commiseration for all the parents who have lost their children in school related gun violence.
We began to discuss the impact of gun violence on children and how lawmakers and American society was responding.
I looked back at the stairs. The spirit was gone. This experience lead me to write why it’s important to discuss school shootings with our families.
Why We Must Discuss School Shootings With Our Families
1. Being A Witness of A Tragedy Is Just As Traumatic As Being A Victim
First, we never know for sure if someone in our family is emotionally and mentally impacted by the news of school shootings. They may be reeling on the inside without physical display of the trauma. And, quite often, simply being a witness to a tragedy is just as traumatic as being a victim.
I’ve helped clients who witnessed deaths and were severely impacted for years because of the tragedy of seeing someone die. I’ve worked with people who simply saw the 9-11 World Trader Center terrorist attacks on television who experienced nightmares for years after.
Therefore, understanding that these people have witnessed something they don’t understand and could not do anything in the moment to change is the first place to start.
2. Repeated Tragedies Highlight Our Ethos As A Society
Second, the frequent tragedies that occur in our society shed light on our social belief systems. It is no wonder why commentators and television personalities are questioning gun laws during these moments as laws reflect what we believe is just and legal as a society.
Discussing community values and noticing how these values are shifting as more of these events become part of national discussion is valuable and meaningful to the family. The primary reason is that most families in America attend public school and safety must also come into the discussion.
3. Raising An Emotionally Aware Family Raises A Compassionate Community
Third, discussing topics in the effort to raise awareness and compassion towards the suffering of others leads us to examine how we think and respond to victims. It’s easy to criticize the systems that allowed these things to happen, the school staff and administrators, and the parents of shooters – not just the shooters themselves. It’s easy to become angry and righteous in these moments.
It takes mental and emotional effort to empathize. That is, to imagine oneself in their position, in an attempt to understand their feelings. It takes a highly developed emotional intelligence to grasp the complexities of human emotion during moments of confusion and pain. Raising children with empathy helps to create a compassionate community because they take this empathy and infuse it into their daily interactions becoming leaders, peacemakers, and solution makers. The world needs more of these people if we are to end school related gun violence completely.
How To Discuss School Shootings With Our Families
For Younger Children
Focus on simple explanations with positive endings: “People were hurt today by a sick man. Those people are no longer hurting. The man is having to answer for his choices and is getting help. People are working diligently to help and learn so this doesn’t happen again.”
Ask simple questions to explore emotions: For example, you could ask, “Do you feel any feelings when you think about what happened?” Follow with, “What do those feelings say?” Remember, there is no wrong or right answer. Accept the responses and invite them to feel welcome to express their emotions and thoughts. You could say, “Thank you for sharing with me. Big emotions often happen to little people, but rest assured that they will soon go away.”
Focus On The Helpers: Mr. Rogers shared a story of himself as a boy, confused by a scary situation. Here is what he said to keep things simple and hopeful for young children.
For Older Children
Take a thoughtful moment to empathize: Observe the feelings that come up when empathizing with the different victims in the school shooting. What types of feelings come up? What do they say?
Lay off Blame & Look for the good: Instead of saying what “they” should have done differently, ask, “What was done right?”
Highlight the positive actions and choices made during the event by specific people from first responders, teachers, and even students.
Invite reflection on personal acts offline: Young people want to feel in charge of their lives. Ask them, “What can you do to raise awareness for survivors beyond just talking about the problem online?”
Instead of making the discussion a political one, make it personal, “What can we personally do to help and empower the people involved in this tragedy?”
Ask specific questions: Instead of, “Why did this happen?” which is a general, overwhelming question. Ask, “What can be learned about gun safety from this particular event?” or, “What was the mental state of the individual who used the guns?” Getting specific as possible narrows down responses and helps create clarity, even if the responses are opinions in nature.
Look for the learning opportunities: Tragic situations do not have to become about judging and labeling. They do not have to be black and white discussions about the “Good” and “Bad” in the world. Instead, focus on what can be learned, what opportunities do we have to treasure our children, and how can we – as individuals – respond to acts of violence and tragedy.
All discussions and emotions are valid, but criticism isn’t helpful. When we discuss school shootings with our families, There is temptation to become critical of everyone involved with a tragedy. Avoid criticism. Instead focus on what can be helpful, hopeful, and purposeful. Maintain discussions in this format to avoid making conversation personal while focusing on personal emotions and using them as guides to better self-understanding.
Discussing traumatic events with our children and family inevitably invites evolving conversation. As powerful feelings come and go in response to school shootings, the awareness of the complex issues remain.
Learning To Not Be Afraid of Tragedy & Trauma
Creating a thoughtful, empathetic dialogue to the experiences of both witnesses, victims, and survivors – in addition to perpetrators – increases our ability to understand and cope with tragic circumstances in our lives.
Many parents are afraid that a traumatic situation will turn their children into self-destructive people. This does not have to be so. Time and time again we are shown in circumstances such as school shootings that ignoring critical symptoms of emotional imbalance causes more pain and suffering. Learning to embrace scary feelings and frightening thoughts and having a shame-free discussion about them in a safe and constructive way is the key to assuring future emotional well-being.
Communication Is Progress
In my family, we have learned that communication is progress. In progress we can learn something new. And, from there, we can do things differently. Finally, as a result of that different choice, opens the door of freedom.
Your Turn: How To Discuss School Shootings With Our Families
Did this article help empower you? Let me know if you tried these techniques I described. Do you have any tips to share with other readers? Let us know your experiences and feelings.