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Why parents need to speak to their children about the Texas shooting, according to psychologists

Elementary school children growing up with lockdown drills should be told about the massacre in Texas, even if parents’ instincts are to shield them from the horror, according to psychologists.

They say the reason is two-fold: There is a high chance their children have heard about it anyway, either through classmates, older siblings, social media, discussions among caregivers or through the bombardment of breaking news that surrounds them. 

More critically, they said, given that they are a generation for which routine drills constantly serve as a reminder of the very remote chance that their own safety could be endangered, they should have a safe space to process the tragedy and ask questions about it.

 There are exceptions to telling kids, particularly very young ones, about the shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers. But psychologists said if parents have not already talked to their children about what happened Tuesday in Uvalde, most should consider doing so.

The fact that lockdown drills are woven into kids’ education might make school shootings less of a shock than they were when, for example, the 1999 Columbine massacre happened in Colorado. If anything, that makes the need to talk more urgent, said Stephen Brock, a professor and school psychology program coordinator at California State University, Sacramento.

May 27, 202203:13

“It shouldn’t change the discussions per se, but it increases the likelihood of the need for such,” he said.

Elisa Vega’s sons listened quietly after she hugged them Tuesday evening and told them something bad had happened at an elementary school many miles away. Her boys, ages 6 and 9, did not seem to fully understand, nor did they reveal much emotion.

Two days later, Vega, who along with her family lives in New York City, checked in with her older son, Nico, and asked him about the lockdown drills that he has done regularly since he was in pre-kindergarten. The third grader described standard practices: His teacher turns off the lights and locks the door; the students crouch under the tables, where they must keep quiet.

Vega asked Nico if he ever talks or giggles during the drills. He said he doesn’t, but he mentioned that another classmate usually won’t stay silent.

Nico then told his mother in a matter-of-fact tone: “He’s going to get us all killed.”

That response, as well as a wide range of other reactions, including feeling numb, confused or scared, is normal, psychologists said.

Regardless of a child’s age, Brock encouraged always communicating any reassuring details.

That might mean making clear that the 18-year-old Uvalde gunman is no longer alive and can’t hurt anyone else. It also helps to explain that administrators are always taking steps to increase security and the risk of a student getting shot in school remains exceedingly rare.

Lockdown drills that are ‘lighthearted’

Although lockdown drills start early, many young children who participate in them may not realize the various scenarios they are rehearsing for, from armed assailants entering the school to nearby police activity to natural disasters. 

This is by design, experts said. Active shooter drills, particularly those that simulate shootings, have drawn criticism over the years for traumatizing students while failing to display strong evidence of effectively protecting them. 

In recent years, there has been a push to make lockdown drills more developmentally appropriate across the country. 

For Amy Farrior, a kindergarten teacher in Marlborough, Connecticut, the drills have always been as stress-free as possible for children. She tells them, “There could be a wild animal or something in the building. We don’t want to let them know we’re here, so how quiet can we get?”

Amy Farrior with her husband and their two kids.Courtesy Amy Farrior

She also jiggles the door handle and tells students, “This is what you’re going to hear. They’re just checking to see if Mrs. Farrior locked the door.” 

“I don’t want to say it’s a game, because we take it serious, but we try to make it lighthearted,” she said. 

Even if children are unaware of the purpose of lockdown drills, psychologist Robin Gurwitch, a professor at Duke University Medical Center, encouraged parents to open a conversation with them and gently correct any wrong information they may have received about the Uvalde shooting. 

She said it was “unlikely” children had avoided hearing about it this week, and she suggested starting a talk with, “There was a shooting at a school in Texas. Tell me what you’ve heard about this, or tell me what you know about this.” 

The Uvalde shooting comes at a delicate time, as anxiety and depression are rising in children and a string of hate crimes across the country have deeply affected families, said Gurwitch, who is also a senior adviser for the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

Within that may be an opportunity to use newfound skills for getting through another tragedy, she added.

“Families have developed some coping strategies,” she said. “It may be that we do some breathing or relaxation techniques, it may be taking a walk, or playing a game, or dancing, or listening to music, or journaling, or playing with the family pet.” 

For other children, particularly teens, concrete action such as participating in advocacy work to end gun violence might feel helpful, said Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism and disaster programs for the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. Teens with memories of past school shootings are not necessarily desensitized to them, she said; instead, they may want to know why things haven’t changed.

“I always try to think about what could youth do, even in their own communities? So have there been situations this school year that they have been worried about their safety, or they’ve experienced bullying or seen somebody not treated right, or worried about something that was posted online?” she said. “What did they do about it, or what can they do?”

The most important advice the experts had was to be honest in conversations with your children. If a young child wants to know if anyone died in Texas, answer truthfully.

“This is what I would say to a little [one]: The chances of it happening at your school are very rare. It’s going to be very unlikely that something like this would ever happen at your school, but do know that the adults at your school are working very hard to make school as safe as they can, so listen to your teachers, listen to your principal, people who are working hard to make school safe,” Brock said. “And that’s the God-honest truth.”

In Farrior’s kindergarten class, none of her young students brought up the Texas shooting. Still, she found it impossible not to think about it this week.

“The hardest part was the day after, standing in my hallway as the kids come in off the bus, and watching them happily jog, silly down the hallway,” she said, her voice breaking. “That’s the way it should be.”

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