I originally wrote this column after mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia. Since then, absolutely nothing has changed. It was updated again when 19 children and two teachers were murdered in a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022. I updated it again after a mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, where three children and three adults were murdered in March 2023. And now, less than a year later, one more time and closer to home, in the wake of yet another mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine. Overnight, at least 16 people were killed and dozens more have been wounded.
As parents, we walk a constant tightrope between shelter and rage. There is the desire to protect our children, to preserve innocence, the one true currency of youth. We send them off each day with blind faith, hoping that today isn’t their turn.
Until actual change arrives, we’re left to teach them how to cope with the unthinkable. So, yet again, here’s how.
Patricia Crain de Galarce is associate dean of Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education, overseeing the Lesley Institute for Trauma Sensitivity. Neena McConnico directs Boston Medical Center’s Child Witness to Violence Project.
Blend reassurance with honesty from a young age. It’s hard to reassure your child that he or she will be safe when truthfully you have no clue. We can’t promise that. But we can be honest and concrete about current events: The violence has stopped. The perpetrator has been caught. You don’t need to initiate the conversation, but if your child has questions, be forthright.
“It’s better to be honest with them and acknowledge [the event], even from a young age,” says McConnico. “If your child is old enough to be in a formalized school setting, they have likely heard something — and they’re keenly aware of their parents’ or caregivers’ increased worry and anxiety. There’s still the misconception that kids, due to their young age, are shielded.”
McConnico urges parents to put things in perspective by turning the focus from the unpredictability of violence to the predictable ways that adults try to keep people safe, with an emphasis on the “trying” part.
Model healthy responses. In your rush to make your kid feel better, you might steamroll their feelings with reassurance. Instead, hear out their specific fears, validate them, and then model your own strong response.
“Instead of acting like, ‘We’re strong; I’ll save you,’ I think it’s much better to name the feelings: ‘I am feeling shaken right now, or sad and angry.’ Model how to express them and how to cope with them: ‘I think I’m going to go for a walk outside. Do you want to come, too? When we come back, we’ll think about what we can do to make the world a safer place,’” de Galarce suggests.
Do you want to let your child see you panicky and anxious? No. But you’re human, and it’s natural to have human responses to inhumane acts.
“We feel like we have to be stoic and not demonstrate emotions. There is a balance. I think it’s OK to cry with your children. I think it’s normal and healthy to express emotions,” de Galarce says.
Identify helpers in your community. McConnico acknowledges that not all families have had positive interactions with police.
“Maybe families have had complicated relationships with law enforcement. In our work with kids, we don’t rule them out as helpers, either. We still identify them as such. We have conversations with caregivers around how to talk about that, what feels safe, helping kids and families to understand that there are helpers, even in law enforcement,” she says. Other helpers could include teachers, mentors, coaches, extended family.
Create an empowerment opportunity. Just as you want to look for the helpers in your community, de Galarce urges parents to help kids to “be their own hero.”
“Brainstorm: What can we do about this? We do not need to accept violence. We want our children to be civic-minded,” she says. Maybe it’s writing a letter to a congressperson or attending a march. Channel worries into action, and model how to do this for your kids.
Watch for warning signs. Kids who do feel unsafe might begin to regress, exhibiting poor sleep or eating patterns, nightmares, or clinginess. Some kids might process fears by engaging in violent play or drawing graphic pictures. To some degree, this is a normal way to make sense of the outside world.
Steer your child into positive behaviors. If he or she draws a scary picture, ask, “‘What could we draw that would make this picture feel safer?’” de Galarce suggests.
“Kids by nature process and make sense of the world with good versus bad, superheroes and villains. But when it spills over — when it’s the only thing kids are consumed with, when they don’t want to play anything else,” it’s cause for concern, particularly if it lasts longer than a month, McConnico says.
Don’t do impromptu safety drills. De Galarce remembers working with a child who refused to wear a red shirt to school for some reason. Why? Turns out, he’d worn it to school on the day of an unexpected gun safety drill. His school announced that the “infiltrator” was wearing a red shirt, too. The drill caught him by such surprise that he was affected long after the intensity subsided.
McConnico urges schools to plan drills in advance, saying they will still provide the same preparedness.
“The goal of the drills to ingrain in children an automatic response: We run, we hide. You can still achieve that by telling kids it’s going to happen. Body memory and repetition allows them to respond to it in the moment,” she says, without being caught completely off-guard.
Set expectations around privacy. Some parents worry that their child might actually turn aggressive or violent, particularly a child who has been bullied and who discusses exacting revenge or hurting animals or other living things, McConnico says.
She urges parents to set expectations early on around privacy, such as keeping tabs on what’s in a kid’s bedroom and backpack.
“Yes, there are some things that are private. We have privacy around closing the door when getting dressed or going into your room if you’re mad. But let your child know that, even as young as second grade, from time to time, you’re going to check. It’s important to set that boundary so it becomes part of the norm and kids aren’t caught off guard by it,” McConnico says. “When there are open lines of communication, research shows children are much less likely to keep things from their parents and are more likely to talk to them and reach out for help and have dialogue about it. Most kids want that.”