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Ask A Therapist: How Do I Talk To My Kids About Uvalde, and Other Mass Tragedies?

Coping Skills, Crisis, Family, Parenting, Ask a Therapist
5 min read

Dear Therapist: I have a 10 year old and a 7 year old and I’m struggling to figure out how to talk to them about Uvalde. Parents of their school were notified that active shooter simulation drills will be held in school, and I want to have a conversation with my children beforehand to give them time to process. How can I have this conversation with them while making them feel safe? 

Frame Therapist Audrey Martinez weighs in...
Coping after a national tragedy such as a school shooting can be difficult for parents and children alike. The unpredictability of the event, the danger experienced, the violation of concepts like safety, trust, power, and control and the closeness to home can be overwhelming and frightening. Talking to your kids about the Uvalde shooting is definitely important, but to your point it can be difficult to find the right words to say. 

To help you find the strength to have this talk with your children, it’s helpful to remember that children are very aware when bad things happen. They pick up on your facial expressions, behaviors, discussions, and hear things from television and from their friends. Not talking about Uvalde would send a message that when bad things happen it’s not safe to talk about them, and  that emotions in general are not safe. Also, kids will come up with their own conclusions and meaning after trauma but given their developmental stage and lack of experiencing coping through hard times, the meaning they come up with might not be helpful. Children may jump to conclusions that they are never safe, that they can never trust anyone, and that it’s useless to try because they are helpless. Their imaginations might be filled with inaccurate and worst-case scenarios.

It's best to start the conversation by asking your child what they know about Uvalde and active shooter drills. This gives you a chance to understand unhelpful and inaccurate information your children might be operating from and it gives you insight as to why they may be feeling and behaving the way that they are. This is an opportunity to balance out any misinformation and misconceptions. Take your time with this part of the conversation. Being a good listener, summarizing back your understanding of what your children have expressed to you, and then validating their feelings is incredibly powerful and can help soothe distress your children may be experiencing. Alternatively, if they are not distressed, they may feel that you are a safe person to go to when they need to talk about important things. 

When talking about active shooter drills, keep the discuss appropriate to the child’s developmental stage. For younger children, you will want to use simple language and for teenagers your language can be more complex. It is helpful to remain calm and confident as you reassure your child of their safety. Explain to your children that just like when they prepare for other disaster drills such as fire or earthquakes, they will begin to prepare for what to do should someone start shooting at school. Regardless of age, it is important to remind your children that practicing during a drill does not mean that something bad will happen, but rather it is important to know what to do if something bad did happen. Focus on how having a plan for a possible, but unlikely, event can help them feel in control and prepared should the unlikely happen. This is also a good reminder for yourself. The purpose of school drills is to be prepared for worst case scenarios so that everyone knows what to do to be safe. They are not predictions of bad things to come. 

At any point in this conversation, it is also ok for you to express your own feelings in an age-appropriate way. Saying things like, “I can see why this would feel scary for you. It’s very new. It’s scary for me too, but we can get through this together” is fine. However, if you feel overwhelmed by anxiety and unable to have the discussion with your children, it’s totally acceptable for you to seek out assistance in processing your feelings so that you can be the safe haven your children need.


About the author: Audrey Martinez, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist. She runs her own private practice in the greater Los Angeles area and specializes in treating survivors of war, rape, disasters, or other tragedies. Dr. Martinez also helps adults overcome the effects of childhood physical abuse and emotional abuse that result in problems such as chronic depression, anxiety, low self-worth, people pleasing, co-dependency, anger, and relationship problems. To learn more about Audrey, or to get in touch, visit her Frame profile here. 

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