Child psychologist discusses how to talk to kids about school shootings

Published: May. 25, 2022 at 6:31 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - In the wake of a fatal mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, parents may have questions about how to approach the subject with their children.

Police say an 18-year-old gunman opened fire Tuesday at Robb Elementary School, killing 19 children and two adults as he went from classroom to classroom, making it the deadliest school shooting in nearly a decade and the latest gruesome moment for a country scarred by a string of massacres.

Dr. Avital Cohen, a child psychologist at Peachtree Pediatric Psychology, is also a mother of three who had the discussion with her own children. She chose to bring it up to her two older children on the drive to school Wednesday before they heard about it at school.

“I didn’t talk with my pre-K kiddo about this, she’s too young to really have concepts to understand what’s going on too much aside from something scary happened and people may be a little bit sad,” said Cohen.

She did choose to bring it up with her first and third graders.

“We talked about that there was a school in Texas and that someone who didn’t have good intentions went in there and did some really bad things and some kids got hurt and some died and that if they had any questions or they heard anything about it that they are welcome to talk with me because I’m always there for them,” she said.

Dr. Cohen said it’s important to reassure your children that they are safe and the person who did the shooting will not hurt them. She doesn’t believe young children need to know the details such as how many victims there were or what was used but said reassuring them of their safety is key.

“Letting them them know that it’s okay to have whatever feelings they’re having, whether it’s sadness, whether its anger, whether it’s just that they can’t handle it, that they don’t want to talk about it,” said Cohen. “If your child says that, I would listen to them and not talk about it and just let them know that door is always open. If that changes, they can come back to you later, but you really have to listen and follow your child’s lead.”

“We all have different resiliency, different ability to handle information, that’s true for us as adults, as well,” she explained.

Dr. Cohen also recommends limiting how frequently you’re getting updates to not overwhelm yourself. That may include turning off the TV or the radio after a while to not get constant 24/7 updates.

Another approach is to let children know they can come to you if they hear anything at school that bothers them.

“If you just want to give a gentle reminder, ‘if you hear something at school that bothers you today, you can always ask me,’ if you don’t feel like it’s something you want to bring up in any level of detail to them,” Cohen said.

There are some signs to look for that may indicate you should contact your child’s school counselor or another professional. Dr. Cohen said that includes if they’re very emotional which is out of the norm for them, if they’re crying a lot and continue to bring it up or if they have difficulty sleeping for several nights.

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