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What mental health experts say to their kids about school shootings

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Like mass shootings in general, school shootings have gone from being a rare tragedy to a tragic reality. Already in 2018 there have been at least 17 instances of gun violence in U.S schools, including the shooting today at a Parkland, Florida high school. In one recent attack at a Kentucky middle school, two children were killed and 18 others were wounded when a fellow student opened gunfire. When I saw the news, I felt the all too familiar sinking in my gut, the clench of anxiety in my throat as thoughts of the victims and their families careened through my mind. I took a moment to do my version of praying for those affected and to ponder a question that has been on my mind since Sandy Hook: How can you possibly explain these shootings to your kids and how to do you talk about it?

I put these questions to mental health experts who are also parents dealing with these concerns at home. Here are their best strategies to keep the lines of communication open and your own emotions in check.

Have Your Own Support System and Self-Care Rituals

For your own sake and your children’s, it’s critical that you make time to quell your own anxieties before diving into the issue at hand.

“To have these conversations open and honestly you need to take care of yourself as a parent,” says Kristin Wilson, a licensed professional counselor and clinician with a teenage daughter. “Have your own support system in a spouse or friend or another go-to person, so that when you’re talking to your child you’ve already processed through it.”

Wilson adds that she experienced her own scare when her daughter’s school was on lockdown for over six hours due to the possibility of a shooter. She found out on the news, when it was leaked to a local media network.

To have these conversations open and honestly you need to take care of yourself as a parent.

To have these conversations open and honestly you need to take care of yourself as a parent.

“I was on the phone with my partner and my friends trying to process everything,” she says. “Having your own support group is important as is indulging in self-care so you’re not so reactionary. Yoga, mindfulness practice, exercise and really anything you can do to better your mental health is essential, because sadly, this is a reality now.”

Let Your Kids Take The Lead

You may be unsure where to even begin with such a heavy topic. Consider asking your kids what their questions are before you give your two cents.

“It is often best to let your child take the lead in asking questions about difficult situations so that you only share what you feel is necessary to satisfy their inquiries,” says Dr. Allison Agliata, a clinical psychologist, head of an independent middle school in Tampa Bay and the mother of three children ages 12 and younger. “Otherwise, as parents, we tend to either share too little and leave them wondering, or over-explain and freak them out.”

Set A Time To Talk Daily Or Weekly With No Screens

Most of the mental health experts I spoke with strongly recommended having screen-free routine family time, and using that time to talk one-on-one with your kids about school shootings and any other issues that may be top of mind. For Wilson, this means a daily check-in at the dinner table.

Consider asking your kids what their questions are before you give your two cents.

Consider asking your kids what their questions are before you give your two cents.

“Sometimes my check-in is as simple as, ‘How was school today?’ And other times it’s a more uncomfortable topic about drugs and alcohol or school violence,” says Wilson, adding that this longstanding ritual has enabled her daughter to always count on this time to talk, trusting that it’s a space to discuss both the good and the bad. “If you set the groundwork early, they will naturally come to you with concerns as well as really awesome things.”

And it doesn’t have to be at the dinner table. Christopher Gerhart, a licensed and certified substance abuse counselor finds that he and his preteen daughter have their best talks about serious matters such as gun violence while he walks her to school. Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker talks with her four kids ages 11 and under individually at bedtime.

“For us it’s a lot calmer. Our household is chaotic [during the day], but at that time lights are dim. It’s usually about 15 minutes each and they really look forward to it,” Kitley says. Dr. Agliata has found bedtime works best for her family as well adding, “we reflect on the day and they have some one on one time with me to share their thoughts.”

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