Talking to Your Child About School Violence and Tragedy

In the wake of recent school violence, images and detailed accounts are all over the media. We want to shelter our children from such harsh and incomprehensible realities, but are they going to find out anyway? Perhaps it is better if they get their information from us first. Or maybe your child already heard about the tragedy and you want to address it yourself. Having an open and honest conversation with your child enables you to:

  • Give non-sensationalized facts at your child’s level.
  • Dispell mis-information.
  • Help ensure your child’s sense of personal and family safety.
  • Answer any questions they may have.

Here are a few ideas to help you support your child and prepare for the conversation:

1. Avoid having your child see the media coverage of the event (television, internet).

2. It’s okay for your child to know that you are upset by what happened. This is a normal and natural way to feel and you don’t have to pretend otherwise. That said, be sure to talk with other adults about your own fears and concerns rather than with your child. You do not want to burden your child with undue stress or worry.

3. Reasure your child that they are safe and that nobody they know was hurt. (Only if this is the case, if  not, see below for additional resources and guidance).

4. Use language that is at your child’s level and that will minimize the shocking impact of what happened. For example, rather than saying that children were shot or murdered, you can explain that people were hurt, and that some of them died.

5. Clarify where the tragedy took place - that it was very far away, not in their school, town or state, etc. (Whatever is applicable). Children may not have a clear sense of geography and distance, so they may otherwise think that it happened very close to where they live.

6. Discuss safety measures that are in place in their own school and home, and emphasize that is is always good to know what to do in an emergency even though they hopefully will never have to worry about an actual emergency.

7. If developmentally appropriate (i.e. for older children), explain that the media is full of information and mis-imformation. Sometimes reports about tragedies such as these are sensationalized, inadvertently or not. Help your child understand that we should always consider the source of information, especially on the internet, and know that we can’t always believe everytyhing we read and hear.

8. Be sure to answer any additional questions your child may have.

9. Be aware that children may have specific concerns relative to your family situation. For example, they may worry about a parent or other adult they know who works in a school, or a sibling who attends a different school.

10. Children who have previously experienced violence, or who struggle with anxiety to begin with, are at a higher risk for more debilitating reactions. If you sense that your child is having a difficult time with the news, seek the support of counselors who are available through your child’s school.

We are all probably trying to understand why and how something so horrific could happen. Unfortunately, there is not likely to be a satisfying explanation. As my friend Lynn Reilly, a school counselor, explains, it is like an accident – we don’t know why it happened, it just did. We can do our best to be careful and try to prevent an accident, but we can’t always stop an accident from happening.

For more on Lynn’s insightful perspective about this tragedy, please visit her blog: http://www.perspectiveparenting.com/2012/12/15/lessons-in-the-wake-thoughts-on-the-sandy-hook-elementary-school-tragedy/

Additional Resources for Talking With Children About Death:

Helping Children Deal With Loss, Death, and Grief: Tips for Teachers and Parents From the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP): http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/griefwar.pdf

Helping Your Child Deal With Death from KidsHealth.org: http://kidshealth.org/parent/positive/talk/death.html

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1 comment


  1. Thanks Sue. These are excellent suggestions to keep in mind when speaking to our children about any tragedy. When I spoke to my own children, I re iterated to them that we would never send them to a place where we did not feel they were safe and since they trust us, its okay to trust the decisions we make when it comes to their well being. I recognize that for some parents, those words won’t come out easily because they don’t necessarily trust our society so readily. If this is the case, I would encourage them to focus on the fact that this was an awful, awful incident, unacceptable in our world and culture, not an epidemic. When we open our eyes to reality and look away from the fear, we will notice that love and kindness prevails everywhere we go.

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