How to Broach Tough Topics With Kids

With school shootings and other tough topics now commonplace in our country’s nightly news, we not only have to worry about how the students of those schools are affected, but also about the tens of millions of other children in schools across the country who have since heard about what happened and now likely struggle with their own feelings of fear, confusion, and uncertainty. Parents and teachers alike may find the following guide helpful in broaching tough topics with their students and children. 

First, pay attention to not just to what kids say, but also what they do. It’s important to watch for more subtle clues that kids may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Other children may prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet, so you can explore those options with your child, too. For younger children, drawing or imaginative play can help them give voice to their fear, anxiety and other difficult feelings.

When the conversation starts, emphasizing that your children and students are safe is crucial. The cardinal rule when talking about this kind of tragedy with children of all ages is for adults to reinforce the safety efforts that their schools and the adults in their lives are already taking to keep them safe. Be specific, reminding them that’s why the school doors are locked all day and why they practice emergency lockdown drills throughout the school year.

Also remind children and teens that, in spite of the headlines, schools are still the safest place for them to be. Unfortunately, this important message is undermined by relentless media coverage; disturbing news and images of the Parkland shooting have been ubiquitous. Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect your kids, so make sure to emphasize this important distinction.

This is especially true for young children, who may know very little about what actually happened but heard something on TV or glimpsed a disturbing photograph online or in the newspaper. In that case, it’s best to keep it general and let their questions be your guide in how in-depth you should be going on the details of the incident. Either way, be sure to emphasize and be specific about what the adults at school are doing to make sure they stay safe.

For older kids who may know more details about the shooting, it’s important to acknowledge the tragedy and not make promises that you, as a parent or teacher, can’t keep. Instead of saying, “I’m positive nothing bad will ever happen at your school,” walk them through the concrete steps being taken to ensure their safety.

A school shooting anywhere can make students everywhere feel powerless, and that sense of helplessness can feed anxiety. To help with this, try to give students a sense of control; emphasize simple examples of adult-led school safety, including exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day. These things should not only help a child feel safer, but also give her a sense of agency. For older students, that list expands to things they themselves can actively do, including reporting strangers on campus as well as potential threats made by classmates or members of the immediate community.

These tips can easily be adapted to other tough topics you may need to discuss with your children or students. We hope you find it helpful.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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