Mental health counselor, parent discuss how to talk about Texas shooting with children

Dr. Charryse Johnson shares how parents and adults can talk to children about violence
Experts say it's best to start with feelings and focus on what you can answer without overwhelming your children with too many details.
Published: May. 25, 2022 at 11:12 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Trauma and grief are two very strong feelings that we can’t always explain. They’re feelings that may be harder to explain and process with younger children.

WBTV spoke to different parents both on and off camera about how they’re discussing Tuesday’s deadly shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas with their children.

Some parents said they were still searching for the right words, others said they were waiting until the school day was over, and some said they were finding the balance between sharing the reality of the situation while trying to comfort their children.

Charlotte mothers, elementary school teacher heartbroken over Texas school shooting

David Roberts has two daughters in elementary school; they’re six and eight years old. He said his mind instantly filled with questions and angst as he saw the news unfold on Tuesday.

You might be feeling your own emotions of anxiety, anger and confusion in the wake of what happened in Uvalde, Texas.

“Everything crossed my mind from do I keep them home from school? Are they going to know about this?”

Roberts says his oldest daughter is more inquisitive while the younger one isn’t quite asking what happened but is still reacting to the grief and sadness surrounding the events.

“My older daughter is thinking about it harder, asking more questions and things like that. Just being open to their questions, asking if they have any questions and trying to answer the questions honestly and truthfully without answering them in excessive details,” he said.

He and his wife are finding time to support them emotionally and try to answer their daughter’s burning questions without being too detailed.

“I want them to be aware of the dangers, I want them to have a sense of safety, and so where is the balance,” he said.

Licensed mental health counselor Dr. Charryse Johnson says while these conversations can be tricky, this is also a time to lean in and support one another.

She says many children may ask “why?” she says this is also the most difficult question to answer because the explanation isn’t always clear. In this case, some children may ask why did the shooter commit this violent crime or how could someone do something like this?

“It’s okay to tell your children we don’t know why these things happened there’s a lot of different reasons and then focus on what you can answer,” Johnson said.

Johnson suggests parents shift the focus from “why” to how children are feeling, and allow them to express those emotions.

“You want to validate what they say, answer their questions as direct and concisely as possible, and then move it toward what resources are available to them if they start getting scared or if they’re wondering if they’re safe at school,” Johnson said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools principals sent a message to parents on Wednesday letting them know staff members would be attentive to students’ questions or concerns about the events in Uvalde, safety measures, and their emotions.

Multiple police departments in Mecklenburg County also added extra patrols and security at schools.

“Take their lead especially if they’re under say the age of 7. They’re going to hear a little bit about it but you want to keep things more thematic like someone was hurt, or there was a school where a lot of children were hurt, we’re very sad and we’re thinking about them,” Johnson said.

Johnson says it’s also important, regardless of their age, to do emotional check-ins with your children, and said sometimes a quick question can help assess how they’re feeling in the moment and then build a path to move forward.

“You just want to ask ‘are you ok?’ ‘Is this something you feel like we need to talk about?’ ‘How does this change the way you feel about going to school?’”

In addition, she said adults should be cognizant of any past trauma a child may have experienced.

“This may bring up some past experiences for them even if it was just a gun threat at a school. All of that comes back to the surface, so context plays a big role.”

For more resources on how to talk to your children about violence and moments of crisis, we’ve added the following links below.

Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers

Talking to children about terrorist attacks and school and community shootings in the news

Promoting Compassion and Acceptance in Crisis

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