How mental health experts explain school shootings to children

Parents wait for news after a reports of a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)
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(WTHR) — As school shootings become more frequent, it's an unfortunate topic of conversation that parents shouldn't avoid with their children.

According to NBC News, there have already been 17 instances of gun violence in schools in 2018. Most recently, of course, is the deadliest since December 2012, when a gunman opened fire on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida killed 17 and injured dozens others.

NBC News' Nicole Spector pointed out talking to children about these tragedies should not be an event-based reaction, but a regular, ongoing conversation to better handle emotions. Spector asked mental health experts how they have these conversations with their children to help them navigate their feelings. Here's what they said:

  1. Have your own support system and self-care rituals. Professional counselor Kristin Wilson said parents need to first take care of themselves before trying to dive into tough talks with their children. "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 said. She said any activities that better your mental health is essential to being able to have an open conversation with your children.
  2. Let your kids take the lead. Clinical psychologist Allison Agliata suggests letting your children ask the questions so parents avoid over- or under-explaining such a heavy topic. "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."
  3. Set a time to talk regularly with no screens. Most experts agreed having "screen-free" time is essential to setting time aside talk about concerns. Whether it's daily or weekly, or at the dinner table or on a ride to school, it gives parents and children a time to reflect on their thoughts. "If you set the groundwork early, they will naturally come to you with concerns as well as really awesome things," said Wilson.
  4. Teach children how to de-stress with gratitude. Having children acknowledge good things about their lives can help them focus on things they enjoy,e ven during difficult times. "I say, ‘think of five things you really loved about your day.’ It’s a way of acknowledging that, yes, bad things happen to good people but let’s be grateful for where we are," said licensed clinical social worker Kelley Kitley. "It’s not avoiding, but rather validating how they’re feeling and understanding what is our reality right now."
  5. Encourage your kids to feel their feelings. It's okay to be upset, especially if kids experience something upsetting. "Be overwhelmed; be worried; be sad; be scared, and then, more importantly, have empathy. These are natural responses. Allow them to happen," said Lynn Zakeri, a licensed clinical social worker.
  6. Don't make promises you can't keep — but do assure them. While the top priority for many parents is their children's safety, in a world that can turn violent in an instant, it's best to focus on what you can control. "Humanity is complicated and so rather than concentrating on the fear of what could happen, my main objective is to instill a sense of power in my children so that they don't let random, single incidents impede their love of life and quest for adventure," said Agliata.