Parents urged to be first to explain to their children what happened when a traumatic event occurs

By Katie Peterson | OSV News

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (OSV News) — When traumatic events happen, like the recent Nashville school shooting, it’s important for parents to explain to their children what has happened, said Melissa Smith, the program coordinator of school counseling and HOPE Clinical Services for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Nashville.

“They will likely hear about it from friends or at school or maybe even see something on the news,” she said “so I think it is important for parents to take the opportunity to be the person who is first and foremost talking to their child about what happened, so that they can hear what questions the child may have and be present for whatever feelings or reactions or responses the child may have.”

On March 27, Nashville became the site of the country’s latest deadly shooting at a school. That morning a shooter, later identified as 28-year-old Audrey Hale, left three adults and three children dead at The Covenant School in the city’s Green Hills neighborhood. The private Presbyterian school educates students in preschool through sixth grade.

Hale, who was armed with two assault-type rifles, was fatally shot dead in interactions with officers who responded to the scene.

To prepare for that conversation about such a traumatic event, the first thing for parents to consider is the child’s age, Smith recommended.

In other words, “what is developmentally appropriate in terms of what they can handle,” she told the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper.

“For an elementary-aged student, you might want to give less specifics,” she explained. “Instead, I’d say something along the lines of, ‘A bad thing happened at a school and some children and grownups were hurt. I wonder what you may already have heard about it.’

“Then, provide them with more information, depending on their response. It is important to let them know that you’re available to talk about how they feel and that their schools are doing a lot of things to keep them safe,” she added.

Students from the nearby Harpeth Hall School pray while visiting a memorial at the entrance to the Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn., March 29, 2023. Three adults and three children, all 9 years old, were fatally shot at the Covenant School March 27. (OSV News photo/Cheney Orr, Reuters)

If a parent knows some specific safety measures at a school, it would be appropriate to share those examples with the child, Smith said. “It can sometimes be reassuring for children to be reminded of the safety measures that are in place. We can’t guarantee that bad things won’t happen, but you can say that the school has done x, y, and z to keep you safe at school.”

Michael “Moose” Moore, president of The Vigilance Group, who has been working with the Nashville Diocese for 10 years on safety training and conducting assessments on safety measures taken at the parishes and schools, agreed that sharing safety protocols can help children feel safer.

“My niece’s daughter goes to St. Matthew School in Franklin, and she was scared to go to school” the day after the Nashville school shooting, Moore said. “But my niece told her, ‘Uncle Moose is on Angel Watch. You don’t have to be afraid because he has been there to teach everybody.’ It put her at peace to hear that.”

For older children, from about fifth grade and up, Smith said, it may be more appropriate to go into specifics.

But, no matter how a parent approaches talking to their children, the most important thing is to “be prepared to listen to their responses without judgment or trying to fix the way they’re feeling,” Smith said. “Just affirm however they’re feeling.

“They may be feeling sad or scared or angry, they may not respond at all, and that’s OK, too, and you need to assure them that their feelings are valid,” she said. “The other thing is to answer questions that the child has and be honest with them.

“If a young child asks, ‘Were children killed’ I think it’s OK to be honest with them and say, ‘Yes,’ and then just be prepared to sit with them in whatever feelings that come up as a result,” she continued. “Additionally, it’s wise to use concrete language such as ‘died’ or ‘killed,’ especially for younger children who are very concrete in their thinking, because other broader terms may cause confusion.”

Aside from talking with children about the tragedy and answering their questions, Smith also recommended that parents limit how much exposure they have to news and media surrounding the event.

“What they can handle is different from what we can handle as adults,” she said. “Images from the news, hearing more and more about what happened can be overwhelming and can produce anxiety for children.”

Instead, “keep routines as normal as possible because children thrive with routines and rituals, so keeping your routines normal in the aftermath of something like this is really important and can create safety,” Smith said. “Children feel safe when they know what to expect.”

Finally, another thing parents can consider is having their children take part in making a card or drawing a picture to share with the affected school.

“We can feel powerless in the aftermath of situations like this, so one of these things can help a child feel like they’re doing something helpful,” Smith said.

If some children seem to be having a harder time coping with the traumatic event, Smith said, most schools have on-site counselors as well to help students who may be having a harder time coping.

“For most kids, this will impact them and there needs to be a conversation about it, but they will be able to recover. But there will be some kids for whom sadness or fear around this does start to interfere with day-to-day life,” Smith said. “It’s normal to be impacted by something like a school shooting, to feel sad, to feel angry, to feel afraid. When you know that you need to look for additional support is when those feelings start to get in the way of daily functioning.”

Examples would be if a child stops wanting to go to school entirely, difficulty sleeping due to nightmares or fears, ongoing and unusual clinginess, excessive moodiness, or decreased interest in activities that they would normally participate in.

“Those are signs that maybe the impact is bigger, and you could use some additional support to get through it,” Smith said.

NOTES: The American School Counselor Association has resources available on its website, including a list of suggestions for helping children process their feelings after a school shooting: The Child Mind Institute also has resources on helping children cope with traumatic events:

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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