JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In the wake of the deadly mass shooting at the elementary school in Texas, many parents are left grappling with the difficult task of explaining the horrific act of gun violence to their children. It happened in a setting where most kids spend a majority of their days. It’s a place they traditionally see as a safe haven.
Just two days before summer break, a gunman wearing a tactical vest rushed his way into a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school and opened fire on a classroom of young children. At least 19 students were killed. Two teachers also died in that mass shooting.
The violent act shook a nation already reeling from another mass shooting in Buffalo less than two weeks ago. It left parents asking the difficult question, how do I talk to my kids about this? What do I tell them when they tell me they are afraid to go to school now?
“I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that emotion, allow them to feel scared, allow them to express that feeling,” said Psychologist Dr. Tracy Alloway, a professor at the University of North Florida. “But as a parent, it’s also important to keep in mind that children very rarely use words to express their emotions. So consider the age of your child.
“A young child, say kindergarten or early elementary school, may express their fear by clinging,” Alloway continued. “They may want to be a little closer to you. They may not want to leave you. They may cry or show tantrums a little bit more often. And it’s important as a parent to recognize this as an indicator that that is their way of expressing their fear.
“If you have a child that’s in the middle school range or even fourth or fifth grade, they may express their emotions by acting out some of that violence. They may include that in part of their play,” added Alloway.
Tuesday’s tragic event marks the deadliest school shooting in nearly a decade since 26 children and adults were killed at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012. It is also at least the 30th shooting at a K-12 school in 2022.
Alloway says students in elementary school will have different reactions than students in middle or high schools. She stresses it is important to have age-appropriate discussions with our children.
“I think the important thing here for a parent is to be sensitive to where your child is coming from. There’s a phrase that’s used. You know, put your oxygen mask on first. So as a parent, you may need to take a moment just to process this information yourself rather than feeling very raw as you talk to them. It’s OK to feel angry or frustrated and just give them that space too,” Alloway said. “Just sit in that emotion rather than feeling that they need to cover it up or even push it down.”
It’s wishful thinking that they are unaware of the shooting. In this day and age of social media, that thinking is naïve. She says parents need to be willing to bring this topic up with their children, especially those of middle and high school age.
“I think it is very important, especially at the high school age because there’s a sense of justice shifts when you look at the middle school age,” Alloway said. “Cognitively the brain development is such that children at that age tend to view things very simplistically as either good or bad or right or wrong.
“Certainly by the time they’re in high school there’s a far more nuanced view of morality,” she said. “And this is a wonderful opportunity to allow them the space to talk through different ideas, to help them understand what are their views.
“Again, it’s important to give them space to express their views rather than you as a parent telling them what they should feel, what they should think,” Alloway emphasized.
Dr. Alloway and her peers agree it is critical to reassure our children that parents and adults at the school are going to do everything we can to make them safe. And that listening to our children is as critical and important as talking with them.