How to talk to your children in the wake of another school shooting

PITTSBURGH — How do you even begin talking to your children about another mass tragedy in which 19 children and two teachers were killed?

Author and speaker Dr. Kevin Elko suggests you begin by listening.

“You’re not listening to give them advice,” said Dr. Kevin Elko. “You’re not listening to say I know the world so much better than you. You’re listening to understand. There’s something powerful and something healing in understanding.”

Elko says now is not the time to hurry up and fix feelings.

“When there’s some kind of hurt, we want to hurry up and feel good, but it’s awful,” said Elko. “And I tell people, don’t be upset about being upset. Be human. It hurts to watch this sort of thing happen. The heartbreak. The families. The children. So be a human being. Go hurt. Take it in and know there are a lot of good things in the world.”

Dr. Gary Swanson works for Allegheny Health Network as a child and adolescent psychiatrist. He says it’s important to remind younger children about the good in the world and reassure them that they’re safe.

“Little kids probably need a lot less exposure to this and what they need to hear from their parents is that things are safe and their parents are going to keep them safe,” said Swanson.

“We want to shelter them,” said Elko. “But life is hard, and it gives us an opportunity to be there and help them develop a mindset in thinking around these kinds of things because it’s going to happen much later. Something will. And so what you want to do is not rescue or shelter but use it as an opportunity to help them think through it.”

Older kids will ask questions and Swanson suggests that parents keep answers concise.

“Don’t go on too far,” said Elko. “Just answer the question that they ask directly. Older kids in particular. I think it’s important for us as grownups to ask them, ‘What have you heard?’ ‘What are you concerned about?’ ‘What do you think about this?’”

Swanson added that events like these are horrible but very rare, and kids are resilient.

“If you’re looking to see if your child is troubled by this, the most common kind of symptoms that we see are they look anxious,” said Swanson. “Maybe they’re having a hard time sleeping. Maybe they’re engaging in violent play. Maybe they’re avoidant of doing things they’d normally want to do. When you see those things, ask them. Hey, what’s going on? I’ve noticed this.”

Elko closed by sharing a story about his best friend’s son who recently died from leukemia.

“His name was Jacob,” said Elko. “His mother was incredible. She was with him nonstop. Loved him. Constantly sat with him and his fears. Sat with him and talked with him. Was there and just loved him nonstop. I was there when he passed away, and you know the last thing he said? ‘Where’s my mother? I want my mom.’ If you think when we go through things that being a parent and being kind and being consistent and being a mother. You think none of that matters? It mattered to Jacob. Go be kind. Go be gentle. Start with being gentle and kind to yourselves. Those things sure mattered to him. That’s my last message. Go be a listener. Go be kind. Go be loving. Because I think being a parent is the greatest call on any life, and now you get a great opportunity to be one.”