How to Help Children Cope with a School Shooting

From trauma specialist Saliha Bava (and N. A. Wetzel):

I. How to help children cope with the news of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

[I am numbed to hear of the horrible mass shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. My heart goes out to all the families and communities that have been impacted.
As a trauma specialist, family therapist, and parent I’m sharing a few things that I am focusing on with my elementary school age child and my family.
What you read below is for children and families who have not been directly impacted by the shooting. 12/15/2012]

Attention to the Context

While talking to children, we have to be attentive to the contextual factors that affect how we respond to children.

  • Child’s age, development stage, and gender
  • Child’s perception of danger or threat or death
  • Whether the child was a victim or witness of this incident or others
  • Child and family’s own history of previous trauma, loss and death, oppression or immigration history
  • Availability of adults in the community who can offer help or support
  • Family context: Is the family in transition? What provides stability or consistency? Specific dynamics, i.e. strengths or challenges in the family?
  • Family culture: What is the ethnic culture or race of the family? What is the social class, the gender of the parent(s), the role of religion or spirituality? Any ill health or addiction issues?

Six Ways to Help Your Child and Yourself as You Respond

  1. Limit your child’s exposure: Keep your children from being exposed to the news. Limit TV/news viewing.
  2.  Limit your own exposure: Switch off the TV and radios, especially if you have kids around you. The more agitated you are, the more your kids can see and sense it. Think about ways of creating a sense of safety. Use the resources of your own culture or religion.
  3. Listen to your child: Listen to your children; don’t just talk to them. Listen to the questions they have and how they are making sense of everything. If they have questions, don’t shut them down by saying, “Don’t think about it.” They already are thinking, so ask them questions. Age appropriate answers are important. Kids have their own ideas about why bad things happen. Let them tell you. Younger kids, who were exposed, will have repeated questions. It is also good to encourage them to talk to their teacher. When kids ask factual questions, it is ok to say, “we don’t know.” For instance, “Why did he shoot?” can be answered with, ”We don’t know why he did it.”
  4. Reassure your child: If your child is afraid to go to school, tell them that they will be ok. “Your school is safe.” I know it is hard to believe our kids and we are ok in the face of this shooting, but we have to do our best to create a sense of safety and attempt to normalize things for them. Give them extra hugs and look them in the eye and let them know you love them.
  5. Do the usual: Spend time and play with them. Do the things you do as part of your routine. Kids will continue with their flow during the day if they feel their routine is as usual. Use your family’s strengths: Meals, reading together, prayer, rituals of your culture to let them experience closeness.
  6. Check into your own reactions: As parents, it is important to step back from our own sense of shock, grief and agitation and to create a sense of normalcy. We need to separate our public response (directed towards our school’s disaster preparedness, gun control, violence policy) from what our child needs now. We need to focus right now on what each of us can do in our family.

Remember to Breathe and Keep Connecting
Keep breathing out the shock! And reach out to your partner, your family and friends to create a sense of community and support! Collective trauma calls for a collective response within your personal network.

II. How to prepare your child for school after the Newtown shooting?


The best approach is to be prepared to respond (as things unfold) rather than to plan your responses in advance.

Stay tuned to your kids: Emotionally, where are your children today? If they know about the shooting, take the time to talk with them about their thoughts and how they are feeling? Your family context (including culture, neighborhood, religious community) and their feelings about school will affect how your children process other incoming experiences. Continue to play, draw, talk, laugh and be with your kids in the time-honored ways of your family.

Stay attuned to your own expectations and reactions: How is your reaction affecting what you are focusing on? What are you doing that is potentially agitating for you or those around you? What can you do to increase a sense of calmness? What new reactions are you having? What are your resources as a parent?

Attend to the context: While being mindful of your family’s context, attend to how family members are reacting differently from each other. Connect with your friendship network, your cultural richness, and your family legacies. Learn what events are being planned at the school and in the community.


Drop-off: Stick to your drop off routine if your kid doesn’t know about the news. Keep play, a child’s language, at the center of your relationship. Check with your school counselor or teacher—how is the school preparing? How will it address different children’s reactions and the differences in who knows what? Get back to your own routine. And allow times of quiet, of silence, when you can experience your self and restore your own inner peace.

Pick-up: Stick to your pick-up routine. Stay tuned to how your child is acting or feeling. They may or may not know the news. So don’t assume from their behavior. Stay open to any questions they may have. Feel free to ask open-ended questions “What did you do in school today?” “Did you learn anything interesting today?” Be playful!

And the days after: You got it: Stick to your routine! And stay tuned to your kid, yourself and your context (family, school, work, community). If your kids learn the news sooner or later, talk to them in an age appropriate way. Attend to their version of the news in the context of your relationship in that moment.

In the face of challenges, we often improvise and find our way, especially when we are mindful of the richness hidden in our family culture. It is ok to be uncertain on how to be or how to give the “best” response. Be open to your child and play with the options and ideas and create with them what works best for you and your family.
Keep love, play, music and the family relationship at the center of your attention and surround it with a sense of responsiveness and mindfulness.

[Dr. Bava’s text has been considerably shortened and edited by Norbert A. Wetzel from the full version that appeared in: The Good Men Project:]

Another very thoughtful posting by our colleague Dr. Jodie Kliman.

children, trauma