It’s happened. Again.
We knew that it would, but it still shocks us.
This time it was a high school in Santa Fe, Texas.
While I’m the editor of Grow Christians, I’m also the executive director of Episcopal Peace Fellowship. Today my two jobs completely collided as I prepared to talk to my children once more about gun violence and I wanted to share a few things with you, our Grow Christians community.
These school shootings often confuse and frighten us when we hear about them and can make our children feel the same thing. It can cause them to be fearful for their own lives or those of their friends and family. I feel it’s critical we talk to our children about these shootings because they need us to answer questions and shape the narrative of the story. We can provide our kids with a sense of normalcy, security and give them resources to address fears that arise.
In our family we have this conversation every time a major mass shooting occurs, starting with the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting when our eldest was only 3.5 years old. What follows is what our family does and I hope it’s helpful for you as you navigate how to parent in the midst of such tragedy.
First, I make time to talk. When my kids were younger, I knew I only needed a few minutes. Now that they are in elementary school, I carve out bits of time for several consecutive days. Every time a question arises or I notice an atypical behavior (crying, clinging to me, change in appetite or sleeping patterns), I stop what I’m doing so we can talk.
I begin the conversation by reminding them that as their parent, I will do everything in my power to keep them safe. I frame the rest of the conversation through this lens, then tell them what happened in an age appropriate way. When my son was in preschool, I used three fact-based sentences: “A person entered a school who didn’t belong there. He used a gun to hurt and even kill students and teachers. The police found him though, so he won’t hurt anyone else now.”
My daughter is far more sensitive and reactive so when I talk to her, I emphasize ways we keep our homes and school safe. I offer concrete examples like keeping doors locked, showing identification when we enter her school and the importance of taking seriously the drills they practice at school. I encourage her to tell her teacher if she ever feels unsafe or threatened at school or if she hears a classmate talk about hurting other students.
In middle school and high school, I expect our kids to express their own opinions about what causes people to be violent and suggest ways to address it. We’ve seen how powerful teenage voices are in the aftermath of the Parkland, FL shootings. I want to validate their suggestions and encourage them to work for cultural change.
The whole time we talk, I tune in to their behavior and emotional state to observe changes. My kids have lived a trauma-free life thus far, so most fears subside with time and parental reassurance. I know this might not be the same for children who have experienced trauma or a personal loss.
I’m honest with them and tell them how I’m feeling; I don’t try to be immune from grief and fear. I talk to them about God’s presence in the midst of suffering and that God shares the pain of those who are hurt. I remind my children that while God is a powerful protector, God is also a grieving parent whose own son died from violence. God never wants other parents to feel the same sadness.
And after we talk about God, my children always ask why the shooting happened.
Sometimes people do bad things and hurt other people, I say. It might be because they cannot control their anger or their fear. We all get scared and angry but when we feel these emotions in such extreme ways and we have a gun, dangerous things can happen. This is a reason why we are a gun free home, I tell them. I try not to reference mental illness because most people suffering from severe mental illnesses hurt themselves not other people. I don’t want to add to the stigma of people living with mental illness. We then talk about never using violence as a solution to our problems and review nonviolence conflict resolution options.
But the truth is, while I don’t know why it happened, I usually know how it happened. A parent or adult hasn’t safely secured a gun in the home and the shooter accesses it. State laws or private sales allow for teenagers to legally buy guns. So as part of our healing process, our family always writes letters to legislators and asks them to tighten gun laws. And then we try to move forward with our normal life. We continue on with homework, piano lessons and softball practice. I know that our routines will provide them with comfort and a sense of safety.
Other resources you might use are the videos from Sesame Street Workshop for talking to children about traumatic experiences and the Fred Rogers Institute’s parent resources for tragic events. Episcopal Youth Ministries also put together this resource list from Browyn Clark Skov after the Sandy Hook shootings about talking to teenagers about tragedy. The best resource and response is simply being present for your children. We don’t have to fix the tragedy or shield them from future danger. We have the opportunity to meet our children where they are through our own grief and our own discomfort.
God is with you.
[Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]