How to Talk to Your Kids About Mass Shootings


You need to be their go-to source. Mass shootings are happening more often, so we need to talk to our kids about the news and distressing current events. In this post, we talk about why it’s important to communicate with our kids, and then we offer specific suggestions from experts about how to have these hard conversations.

The Shooting in New Zealand

I was certain that my tween boys hadn’t heard anything about the shooting in New Zealand. It was spring break and we were together the entire weekend. I knew what they were watching on TV and I was keeping track of what they accessed on their devices. We didn’t watch any news or hear anything on the radio.

My husband and I were finally able to talk about this horrific event out of their earshot when we got home. Our oldest son has several Muslim friends, so we wanted to think through how to discuss this with him. We’ve also heard about (but haven’t seen) the video from the shooter’s perspective and definitely don’t want our boys to watch it. Our oldest is an impulsive kid who wants to know about everything that’s happening, and we were concerned that telling him not to watch the video would just pique his curiosity.

When I talked to my son, I struggled to find the right words. But he already knew. My son had seen it on the front page of a newspaper in a coffee shop. He didn’t ask any questions at the time and I didn’t even notice the paper. He also said that headlines popped up when he checked a weather app.

image of newspaper New York Times and juice glasses and menus

Do we really need to talk to our kids about the news?

A resounding YES. Our kids will find out what’s happening in the world. We do our very best to protect them, as we should, but we also need to be realistic.

Our kids will hear about these horrific events from social media, other apps, friends at school, breaking news across the TV, a news update on the radio, or even a newspaper at a coffee shop. And they may not say a word to us about it.  

What does this mean for parents? We have to parent accordingly. It doesn’t matter if we’d rather not talk about it. It doesn’t matter if we don’t know what to say.

Traci Barger, a National Board certified high school history teacher, agrees:

“You need to talk to your kids. If you aren’t talking to them, you can bet someone else is.”

 Picture of a teacher and her 2 teen daughters

Traci and her daughters

Remember where you were when the Challenger exploded?

In this era of constant news, access to real-time events and fake news, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as a parent. I can’t imagine being bombarded with all this information as a tween or teen when I was also worried about math homework, acne and hoping practice ended in time to watch Growing Pains.

Sometimes it helps to put things in perspective when I realize what our kids are navigating in years that are difficult anyway. It makes parenting harder because we’re facing new challenges and we don’t know what the long-term impact will be. I remember sitting in the library in elementary school, so excited to watch Christa McAuliffe lift off in the Challenger. I will never forget staring at the screen in disbelief and horror when it exploded.

Christa McAuliffe astronaut and teacher on the Challenger

I was a high school teacher at the beginning of my career on 9/11 and I flipped on the tv as soon as we heard that something had happened in NYC. My students and I watched live as the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

I remember feeling tremendous responsibility as a teacher to help my students process what they had just seen, even as I was trying to do the same. How was I going to deal with this? It wasn’t part of any of my teacher education classes!

As an English teacher, I decided the best thing to do was write. I threw out my lesson plans for the week and we put together a newspaper. I encouraged my students to talk to their parents and other adults they trusted for reactions and quotes.

Those two events, and how media outlets covered them, left a lasting impression on me. I’m sure you could tell me exactly where you were when the Challenger exploded and on 9/11. Our parents have vivid memories of the day Kennedy was assassinated, and our grandparents of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

How do we navigate parenting in the Digital Age?

But our kids? I wonder if they’ll have any “I remember exactly what I was doing when…” moments about national or world events. Or will things seem to run together in an endless tragic stream for them?

Five of the deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. have occurred in the last 10 years. The UN reports that economic losses from natural disasters have “surged” in the last 20 years. The number of hate crimes reported to the FBI in 2017 was an increase of 17% from just one year before. CNN lists five notable terrorist attacks in the U.S. between 1978 and 2001, but six attacks since 2013. According to The New York Times, in the wake of the #metoo movement, over 200 prominent men lost their jobs after being accused of sexual harassment and several were arrested.

That was a miserable paragraph to research and write, but I think it’s necessary to stare at this reality in black and white because it’s swirling around our kids all the time. We have an incredibly important job as parents, and it feels overwhelming to be parenting in the digital age. Every generation faces new challenges, and this is one of ours. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to rise to the occasion and do the best I can with the information available to me.

Where can I get trustworthy information as a parent?

Like most things that Mary and I write about, it all comes down to healthy communication. We have to talk to our kids about what they see and hear on the news. But how? You can search online and find a lot of advice, but that can sometimes lead to information overload. So I gathered suggestions from experts in a variety of fields because their different perspectives are valuable, and compiled the list below based on what was shared by multiple sources.

Common Sense Media (mentioned by Mary in our last blog about making family meals a priority) is a trustworthy nonprofit organization that provides information and education about our rapidly changing digital world for parents, teachers and policymakers. I’ve also included suggestions from the American Psychological Association for a mental health and relational perspective, and the American Academy of Pediatrics for a developmental and clinical perspective. Information from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement provides insight from an organization working directly with schools and communities after a tragedy. How I wish this didn’t even have to exist….

I also interviewed two teachers, a guidance counselor and a principal because we need some real-life experiences, too! They’re working with kids every day, teaching and parenting in the wake of tragic events.

  • Traci Barger is a National Board certified high school history teacher with 25 years of experience. She won both a school and a North Carolina regional Teacher of the Year award.
  • Cara Hesson is a 4th grade teacher with 20 years of experience and expertise in teaching math. She teaches in a large Ohio school district, and has her hands full at home with three tween boys.
  • Emily Houtz is a school guidance counselor who earned her master’s degree from the top-ranked School of Education at the University of North Carolina.
  • Hilary Sloat is the principal at a large and very diverse elementary school in central Ohio. She’s been in education for 19 years, including the last six as a principal. Her school received a National School Boards Association’s award for exemplary, innovative practices in advancing student learning.

This two-minute video from the American Academy of Pediatrics gives tips on talking to kids after a disaster.

How exactly should we talk about mass shootings and terrorist attacks?

Take care of yourself.

Your kids will pay attention to how you respond, so you need to be proactive. Take breaks from constant news coverage, spend time with your family, do something positive for someone else. If you need some help taking breaks, we have 61 ways for you to clear your mind and relax.

Start the conversation. Find out what they know.

A guide from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement says, “Being silent on the issue won’t protect them from what happened, but only prevent them from understanding and coping with it.” Every single source emphasized the importance of open communication with your kids, and the responsibility we have to initiate the conversation.

Ask kids what they know so you can determine how much to share and what needs to be corrected. This also gives you an opportunity to find out where they are getting information and from whom.

Be available. Listen.

Traci’s response was helpful because it takes some of the pressure off: “You don’t have to have answers.  Some situations just don’t have answers. Kids need a safe space to ask questions, to process, to figure out how to be empathetic or not afraid or whatever other emotions they feel. More than anything, I just believe that there is no replacement for human interaction.  We are social creatures who need each other in good times and bad.”

Cara agrees: “Kids need a safe place to talk about controversial subjects to help them process their thoughts/feelings. It’s okay if parents don’t understand the tragedy themselves. It’s important for our kids to see how we process our own feelings/thoughts and some things cannot be understood or explained.”

Nobody expects us to be perfect and have all the answers, so let that go and just be there for your kids.

Common Sense Media infographic kids and the news

Be honest. Share accurate information.

Cara steers her students toward the facts, and Traci makes sure to have accurate information and tries not to engage in speculation.

As a parent, you can guide your kids to credible sources of information. Emphasize the importance of sharing the truth and not perpetuating rumors or stories that aren’t coming from trusted news organizations. Avoid graphic details and share information in a way your kids understand–you know them best.

Hilary echoes these ideas: “As a parent, I want to keep my children informed what others might be going through, but I don’t want to give them too many details that would trigger anxiety. I see my role as guiding them through these events and how they can respond to their peers at school. I am a strong believer as a principal that teaching empathy is essential. Kids need to consider how others feel and think.”

Common Sense Media and fake news and kids

Talk about news coverage.

As a former reporter, Mary gave me some valuable insight about how news organizations operate. The two goals of the news have always been to entertain or to inform. She told me about news values that media use to determine what gets covered: immediacy (it just happened), prominence (it involves someone famous), significance (it impacts a large number of people), human interest (those stories that pull on the heartstrings), unique or bizarre, proximity (how close it is to us) and  currency (it’s a hot topic). Mass media is always evaluating what readers do–what do they buy or read or click on–and so most news organizations respond to the needs or wants of their readers.

When our kids have trouble understanding how and why stories are being covered, this information can provide a starting place for discussion. We won’t dig into it in this post, but this also gives you a good opportunity to talk about media literacy. PBS has a page of resources for teachers, but it would be helpful for parents as well, especially because it focuses on specific current events.

Offer perspective.

As adults, we have experience and perspective that our kids don’t have. They may think that the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is. George Gerbner was a communication professor at the University of Pennsylvania who identified Mean World Syndrome as something that could result from exposure to too much violence on television. We can help our kids understand that the world is full of people who are impacting their communities for good. (We have a guide to introduce your family to some incredible organizations and companies, and give you a way to volunteer together.)

Traci’s family starts with the Bible: “God’s Word is all sufficient even if it is not obvious or flashy.” Cara says her family uses their faith as the lens for all of these discussions. We do the same because it guides everything else we do (see our previous post about family values). A Biblical perspective is always part of our hard conversations.

Help them feel safe.

In Emily’s role as a school counselor, she is always “available for any students that need to talk about a tragedy and any fears or anxieties they might be experiencing. My top priority is to make sure that these kids feel safe and to remind them of all the people here at school keeping them safe. It is really important that they know they can talk to me, or another staff member, about anything while they are at school.”

Emily and Bruce Houtz

Emily and Bruce Houtz

Take action.

Nobody likes feeling helpless, and teaching kids to take action is a positive and healthy way to cope. Doing something for others can help kids feel connected and give them ways to contribute to the world–two important building blocks of resilient kids.

Traci’s family talks about ways they can help, even in small circumstances: “For example, after the Newtown shooting, I read that people were going to decorate the new school location when it opened with paper snowflakes.  I asked everyone that I knew to make snowflakes to package and send. I think doing something helps people deal with things that are too sad and big to handle.”

Check in.

In the days and weeks after tragic events in the news, keep an eye on your kids. Make sure they know you’re always available to listen. Pay attention to the media they’re consuming. If they have questions that you need more help answering, or if you’re uncertain about how they’re processing things, get more help. Look for more resources online, talk to your doctor and consider contacting a school or professional counselor. Our kids are living in a world unlike anything we experienced, so of course we’re going to need help! Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

Additional Resources

Hilary shared some great resources that I want to pass along. These are trustworthy recommendations!

  • Teaching Tolerance is a magazine and website. Their topics are current and spot on as we work to address the needs of all our students. Their topics are spot on with what is going on in our world and how we can address the needs of all of our students.
  • I am also impressed with Michele Borba’s work on teaching empathy. Her book Unselfie is great! Here is the link to her website.
Unselfie Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba

    I’ll close with one of the most interesting thoughts that was shared with me as I prepared this post. It’s from Traci: “One thing that I have learned from teaching about Ancient Greece is that they believed tragedies were an important part of culture because watching other people’s sorrows made the society as a whole more empathetic and less judgmental.  That sentiment seems like it could go a long way in today’s world.”

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