It's a terrifying situation no parent wants to imagine, but we can't ignore the truth: School shootings do happen, and the tragedy at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado this week highlights how often they're happening. There have been 15 school shootings in the United States so far this year, CNN reports.
Kids are scared and parents are scared, too. Not only of the possibility of violence in our own communities, but of fielding questions from our kids we wish they didn't have.
In the face of that fear, we parents can empower ourselves to protect our children's sense of security at school, and their mental health.
Psychologists Dr. Laurie Zelinger and her husband, Dr. Fred Zelinger, tell Motherly parents need to start by quelling our own anxiety first. “Turn off the TV once you know what's going on and don't obsessively watch or listen to the news," Fred suggests. “If it's two parents [in the household], talk to each other."
That's what the Zelingers have done in their own household over the years.
Laurie is a child psychologist and author of Please Explain 'Terrorism' to Me: A Story for Children, PEARLS of Wisdom for Their Parents. She says that if one parent is feeling a lot of anxiety, it's okay to let the other parent take the lead in a discussion with the kids. Both parents, though, should be mindful to keep their own fears and anxiety in check so that kids feel a sense of security.
“Even if [you're] not comfortable, you have to do a couple of things to make yourself look more comfortable," she suggests. “Talk much more slowly than you think you need to, and sit at your child's eye level."
The Drs. Zelinger suggest the first step in creating an atmosphere of comfort is making sure kids are warm and cozy, so cuddle up with a blanket and a cup of hot cocoa, but don't start heavy discussions with your kids right at bedtime. Instead, set aside an earlier time in the day to hang out with your kids and answer their questions.
If the idea of talking about school shootings with your kids has you frazzled, try using Dr. Zelinger's 'PEARLS' of wisdom method.
P is for Prepare
Before discussing school shootings with your children, decided what you think they need to know, and plan out how you're going to explain it at an age-appropriate level. “They don't need every detail," says Fred.
E is for Explain
If your child wants to know why their school is practicing drills, or why everyone keeps talking about guns, tell them, but keep it simple and on their level. “I would probably give them an explanation that was only two or three sentences and see if that satisfies them," says Laurie.
If it seems like your kid isn't getting what you're saying, as them to break it down for you. “You cannot assume that what you say is understood, unless you check," says Fred.
A is for Answer
If your child asks the same question more than once, try to use the same explanation each time you respond. “You're usually better off using the same answer you used before so the child realizes there is certainty in it," Fred notes.
R is for Reassure
According to Laurie, one of the best things parents can do for a child who is concerned about school shootings is simply reassure them that the grownups are doing their best to keep them safe.
Don't make guarantees, but remind them that there are more good people in the world than bad.
L is for Listen
“Just let your kids talk," says Laurie. Take some mental notes while they go on. The things they keep repeating are the issues they're confused about and that you can clarify later. Be mindful of the areas that they're avoiding too, because maybe you need to fill in an important detail that they've totally missed.
S is for Safeguard
If your child is worried that their school will be targeted by a school shooter, take a moment to talk about all the things their school is doing to prevent that from happening. “Make sure we're reminding the children of all the safeguards in place to protect them," says Laurie.
She says if a child is particularly scared, parents might consider having an in-classroom conversation with the teacher while the little one is present, and saying something like: “Sam here is really worried about bad guys coming into the school, but I've told him you know all the rules to protect kids from bad guys, right Ms. Smith?"
“The mother is passing the trust baton on to the teacher and the child sees it," Laurie explains.
Unfortunately, we can't guarantee another school shooting won't happen. But we can guarantee our children that we will always be there to listen to them, and hug them tight at the end of the school day.
[A version of this post was published February 6, 2018. It has been regretfully updated.]