Just a few days before the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, I got a text message from my 11-year-old son in the middle of the day — somewhat unusual, since he knows he’s not supposed to text during school.
“I’m OK right now,” it read, “but I’m in a lockdown, and if worse comes to worst I love you.”
I had to read the message a few times before the words actually made sense. When they did, my head spun, I felt cold and hot all over, and I had to lean against a wall to steady myself.
For the next 2 hours, I waited for official updates from his school, my stomach knotting and churning all the while.
My son and I established, over a flurry of text messages, that he was safe in a classroom “with advantages for escape” and mostly feeling calm. He joked about the lockdown possibly being due to a bear visiting the school grounds.
Still, I could tell he was scared. He asked me to give each of our pets “lots of love” from him and warned me not to call, just in case.
Turns out, the school went into lockdown after some students reported that another student had brought a gun to school. It ended up being a rumor — I’m extremely fortunate my son never faced any real danger.
Later, when we talked through the day, he said he hadn’t wanted me to worry about him. I assured him he’d done just the right thing texting me, no matter how frightened I’d been.
I didn’t detail in words exactly what I had feared, but I also didn’t hold back. I reminded him it was OK to feel scared, upset, even angry, and that talking about those feelings could help us work through them.
The experience drove home the current nightmarish reality of parenting in the United States: Sending a child to school each morning means acknowledging the chance they won’t come home.
To add to the nightmare, children have to face that reality themselves each time they run through an active shooter drill or learn about the most recent school shooting.
If you think that sounds overly dramatic, consider this:
In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that firearm-related injuries had overtaken traffic accident injuries to become the leading cause of death for children and adolescents.
That means more U.S. children (anyone between the ages of 1 and 19) die by acts of gun violence than by any other cause of death, including:
- car crashes
- drug overdose or poisoning
- illness or accidental injury
In the face of data like that, how are you supposed to hide your fear, frustration, and anger in front of your kids when news of yet another school shooting breaks? I argue that you shouldn’t keep those emotions to yourself — and experts largely agree.
My kid reacts easily to stressors, feels injustice deeply, and quickly picks up on tension and excitement. In short, he’s pretty sensitive.
Children can be fairly perceptive, and they often notice more than you realize — especially when it comes to your own thoughts and emotions.
If you’re anything like me, you want to shield your child from unnecessary pain and distress and protect them — as much as possible — from frightening or upsetting experiences. So, when you despair over world events and begin to lose hope that things will ever improve, you might instinctively try to keep those feelings to yourself.
But when you try to smooth over your emotions, saying, “I’m fine,” “Don’t worry, or “Everything will be OK,” you do yourself and your child a disservice.
As the study above suggests, emotional suppression doesn’t benefit anyone. Not you, and not your child. Plus, when you essentially lie —you aren’t really fine, after all, and you can’t promise everything will be OK — you can shatter the trust they’ve placed in you.
Know, too, that avoiding or hiding your feelings can eventually teach them to do the same thing, which can have major consequences for their emotional and mental health.
“Don’t worry that bringing up a recent traumatizing event will cause trauma for your child,” says Vicki Botnick, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Tarzana, CA. “They’re likely already hearing about these events and struggling to make sense of the information they’re getting from peers or social media.”
In fact, Botnick goes on to say, you have two good reasons to address these tough issues with your kids:
- If they sense you’re avoiding a topic, they may learn to do the same. When they hide their confusion and fear, these repressed feelings can fester over time.
- An honest discussion promotes open communication, which makes it more likely they’ll continue to come to you when they need guidance.
“Starting the conversation is important, in order to let kids know it’s acceptable and healthy to talk. We want them to feel like it’s okay to talk about difficult issues, challenging feelings, and taboo subjects, so that as they get older and grapple with more dangerous situations, they know we’re a safe person to check in with,” Botnick says.
Showing emotion around your kids can have a lot of value, but that doesn’t mean you should bedisplaying unregulated distress.
Instead, consider it an opportunity to demonstrate how to effectively regulate emotions.
“In order to create safety for our children when we speak to them, we need to be both regulated and nonjudgmental. Our regulation, or calmness, helps them feel safe to share. Our lack of judgment can help them feel like they can bring up anything without getting criticized or punished.” Botnick says.
If your emotions begin to become overwhelming, you don’t necessarily need to conceal that from your kids. Instead, use words to explain you’re having a tough time and demonstrate how you cope.
- “I feel so upset after watching the news. I’m going to take a media break. Want to play a game together?”
- “When I feel sad, I like to go somewhere that makes me feel better. Let’s pack a lunch, take a mental health day, and go to that park we love.”
- “I’m having a hard time putting my feelings into words right now. I’m going to take the dogs outside, take some deep breaths, and collect my thoughts. We can talk more when I come back in.”
Consider, too, that your conversation will probably take a different shape depending on your child’s age.
Younger children who still don’t have a good grasp on their own emotions may have a hard time making sense of complicated feelings. They may simply feel distressed — or feel frightened by your distress — without knowing how to put those feelings into words.
Asking your child questions or introducing the topic in other ways can give them the opportunity to share how they feel.
- “I know a lot of people are talking about guns and shootings. What do you know about what’s happening right now?”
- “I’m feeling very sad and angry right now. What do you feel?”
- “You might have a lot of confusing feelings right now, and that’s OK. It’s not always easy to talk about them, but talking can help, and I’m always here to listen.”
Wondering how to best open the conversation? Not sure how to walk the fine line between sharing too much with your kids and too little?
Look to your child
“The key is letting your child lead,” Botnick emphasizes. “Ask them what they know first, so you can respond without adding a lot of new information and correct any inaccuracies. Be straightforward, but limit how much you share.”
Botnick also notes that less is more, particularly for young children, and when you feel too upset to stay calm. Offer simple, direct information and ask if they have any questions or additions.
The goal is to provide facts without giving them more information than they can handle at once.
Avoid empty reassurances
No matter how much you want to reassure your child, it typically doesn’t help to say things like, “Don’t worry, that will never happen at your school,” or “Everything’s fine.”
For one, they probably realize that everything is not, in fact, fine. They might also call you on the fact that you simply can’t know that for sure.
Avoid casting blame
If you feel angry about an average of 10 mass shootings a week, well, that’s a perfectly natural reaction. But blaming specific people or groups won’t address the larger problem of gun violence, and it likely won’t help you feel much better, either.
In some cases, doing so may even promote harmful stereotypes and lead your child to make assumptions about specific groups of people.
Keep it honest
Honesty is pretty much always the best policy, even when it comes to frightening news. That said, you’ll want to consider your child’s age and emotional needs when deciding how you share information.
If you can’t answer everything your child asks, it’s always OK to say so.
Older children and teens might feel more reassured when they have more facts and information. They’ll also respect you more if you admit you don’t know something rather than offer a vague or fudged answer.
Instead, offer your help with research so you can find the facts together.
Discuss safety measures
Botnick recommends framing conversations with school-aged kids around their safety.
“Make sure they know they’re being protected as well as possible, and steer the conversation toward the steps their school has taken to keep them safe.”
She also notes that it can help to mention positive things, like acknowledging people who stepped in to act bravely during a mass shooting or other traumatic event. You could also offer examples of specific actions people have taken to address gun violence.
Take their age into account
Tweens and teens might have more interest in the deeper issues around a mass shooting or other traumatic event, Botnick notes, so they may want to explore topics like emotional reactions and political ramifications in more depth.
“Sharing their outrage and concerns, while also modeling restraint, can help them feel understood,” she says.
Don’t try to solve it
Keep in mind that your kids may not always want a solution, if a solution even exists. Sometimes, they simply want to vent their pain and frustration.
You can help by acknowledging that distress — “I know you feel scared right now, I do, too” — without automatically switching to problem-solving mode.
Emphasize the importance of self-care
Showing your kids how you take care of yourself during difficult times can teach them to practice those same skills.
- switch off TV and devices in favor of a book, game, craft, or time outdoors
- honor family mealtimes and bedtimes during a crisis as much as possible
- check in with your kids about everyday topics, like math class and college applications
- encourage relaxation with hobbies and friends and loved ones
Botnick also emphasizes that kids of all ages might benefit from exploring ways to take action, which can help them avoid feeling trapped in feelings of helplessness and despair.
That could mean contributing with them to a charity, or attending (or planning) a discussion event so they can learn more about potential actions they can take.
Parenting in the United States is stressful. You might find yourself having regular discussions with your children about gun violence, but also topics like racism and hate crimes, police violence, turbulent politics, the climate crisis, and even the loss of bodily autonomy.
Masking your feelings about these complex topics might seem like a good way to protect your kids, but it often just adds to your emotional turmoil — and theirs.
Instead of pushing yourself to keep your emotions in check at all times, let your kids know it’s OK to cry and get angry. It’s OK to feel scared, sad, or even a little helpless. Then, help them practice soothing their own distress by showing them how you manage those feelings.
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.