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Talking to kids after a school shooting

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Although mass shootings have become more common, the loss of 19 children, gunned down at school, is very hard to understand. Around the country, as parents and caregivers process their own emotions, many might wonder how best to talk to their children about it. Well, NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now with some thoughts. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, Ailsa.

CHANG: I mean, the details of what happened are so horrific. I can imagine some parents may not want to say anything to their children about it at all. What do you think? What is the right way to handle a tragedy like this?

AUBREY: Well, saying nothing is not the best approach, especially if your kids have already talked to classmates about it, which is probably the case with most school-aged children. And to determine how much information to provide, you really want to take your cues from your kids. A good first step is to simply ask them what they've heard, what they're feeling. This is David Schonfeld's advice. He's a pediatrician who directs the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.

DAVID SCHONFELD: Children's questions may be very different than adults' questions. And before we can offer reassurance or help them with what's bothering them, we have to understand what their actual concerns are.

AUBREY: So that's the first step - start the conversation, and then listen. Some common questions that come up are, why did this happen? Could it have been prevented? And could it happen at my school?

CHANG: I mean, my God, those are really tough questions. What's the best way to answer questions like that?

AUBREY: Well, you know, Ailsa, I'd like to be able to tell my own 11-year-old daughter, hey, don't worry, this could never happen here. But, of course, with 27 school shootings and more than 200 mass shootings this year alone across the country, it could happen here. I mean, and that makes me anxious. I'm sick to my stomach when I think about the fact that 19 children went to school yesterday and never came home. So, you know, as parents, we have to take a moment to process our own emotions before we can try to respond thoughtfully to our children. And when we do, we can look to our schools for help. The principal at a local middle school here sent an email to parents, explaining that faculty and staff would greet the children this morning to help them feel safe. They want children to maintain their routines, but they knew kids would have questions. Some may need support if they're upset or anxious. Here's Dr. Schonfeld again.

SCHONFELD: And a lot of people say to me, you know, this is just the new normal. And my reaction to them is, there's nothing normal about this. Children should not shoot and kill other children. But it is our current reality. And so we have to, at least until we can change this, help kids learn to cope with the distress that they feel when they recognize inherent dangers that are part of the world.

AUBREY: Now, kids respond differently to this distress. Schonfeld's organization has a very helpful guide for parents with a bunch of tips to work through this. Some kids may be sad. Some might not sleep well as they process the news. Others may be angry.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, how can we help kids process that anger?

AUBREY: You know, it's natural to be angry. It's natural to want to blame. But, sadly, if kids directed their anger, say, at an individual who acts in hatred, this doesn't take away grief or solve the problem. Anger begets anger, so parents can help kids redirect their anger. Think about what happened in Parkland after the 2018 mass shooting.

SCHONFELD: We saw that in Parkland - that youths were effective activists, bringing some attention to these issues. It did not solve the problem, but it did make a difference. And so I think, yes, kids can be part of the solution, but the adults have to be a big part of the solution, too.

AUBREY: So bottom line - have conversations with your children. Ask them what they're thinking, what they're feeling.

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: That is a very good place to start.

CHANG: That is NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.