In light of the recent tragedy at The Covenant School, which resulted in the death of six individuals including three 9-year-old children, Melissa Smith, program coordinator of school counseling and HOPE Clinical Services for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Nashville, said it’s important for parents to explain to their children what has happened.
“They will likely hear about it from friends or at school or maybe even see something on the news, so I think it is important for parents to take the opportunity to be the person who is first and foremost talking to their child about what happened, so that they can hear what questions the child may have and be present for whatever feelings or reactions or responses the child may have,” Smith said.
To prepare for that conversation, Smith recommended that the first thing to consider is the child’s age.
In other words, “what is developmentally appropriate in terms of what they can handle,” Smith said.
“For an elementary-aged student, you might want to give less specifics,” she explained. “Instead, I’d say something along the lines of, ‘A bad thing happened at a school and some children and grownups were hurt. I wonder what you may already have heard about it.’
“Then, provide them with more information, depending on their response. It is important to let them know that you’re available to talk about how they feel and that their schools are doing a lot of things to keep them safe.”
Continuing from that, if a parent knows some specific safety measures at a school, it would be appropriate to share those examples with the child.
“It can sometimes be reassuring for children to be reminded of the safety measures that are in place,” Smith continued. “We can’t guarantee that bad things won’t happen, but you can say that the school has done x, y, and z to keep you safe at school.”
Michael “Moose” Moore, president of The Vigilance Group, who has been working with the diocese for 10 years on safety training and conducting assessments on safety measures taken at the parishes and schools, agreed that sharing safety protocols can help children feel safer.
“My niece’s daughter goes to St. Matthew School in Franklin, and she was scared to go to school the next day,” Moore explained. “But my niece told her, ‘Uncle Moose is on Angel Watch. You don’t have to be afraid because he has been there to teach everybody.’
“It put her at peace to hear that,” he said.
For older children, from about fifth grade and up, Smith said, it may be more appropriate to go into specifics.
But, no matter how a parent approaches talking to their children, the most important thing is to “be prepared to listen to their responses without judgment or trying to fix the way they’re feeling,” Smith said. “Just affirm however they’re feeling.
“They may be feeling sad or scared or angry, they may not respond at all, and that’s OK, too, and you need to assure them that their feelings are valid,” she said. “The other thing is to answer questions that the child has and be honest with them.
“If a young child asks, ‘Were children killed’ I think it’s OK to be honest with them and say, ‘Yes,’ and then just be prepared to sit with them in whatever feelings that come up as a result. Additionally, it’s wise to use concrete language such as ‘died’ or ‘killed,’ especially for younger children who are very concrete in their thinking, because other broader terms may cause confusion.”
Aside from talking with children about the tragedy and answering their questions, Smith also recommended that parents limit how much exposure they have to news and media surrounding the event.
“What they can handle is different from what we can handle as adults,” she said. “Images from the news, hearing more and more about what happened can be overwhelming and can produce anxiety for children.”
Instead, “keep routines as normal as possible because children thrive with routines and rituals, so keeping your routines normal in the aftermath of something like this is really important and can create safety,” Smith said. “Children feel safe when they know what to expect.”
Finally, another thing parents can consider is having their children take part in making a card or drawing a picture to share with the affected school.
“We can feel powerless in the aftermath of situations like this, so one of these things can help a child feel like they’re doing something helpful,” Smith said.
Smith said there are also several resources available online that can help parents preparing to talk to children about this kind of event.
• A six-minute video from Sissy Goff of Conscious Discipline in Nashville that helps parents know how to help their children through their thoughts and reactions. The video can be found at www.instagram.com/reel/CqTMKdSgWgc/?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y%3D.
• The American School Counselor Association also has resources available on its website, including a list of suggestions for helping children process their feelings after a school shooting. The list can be found at www.schoolcounselor.org/Publications-Research/Publications/Free-ASCA-Resources/After-a-School-Shooting.
• The Child Mind Institute also has resources on helping children cope with traumatic events. To view them, visit childmind.org/guide/helping-children-cope-after-a-traumatic-event/.
If some children seem to be having a harder time coping with the traumatic event, Smith said, most schools have counselors on-site as well to help students who may be having a harder time coping. Catholic Charities contracts with several schools in the diocese to provide counseling services to students. Those schools include St. Edward School, St. Ann School, St. Pius X Classical Academy, and Holy Rosary Academy in Nashville; St. Joseph School in Madison; St. John Vianney School in Gallatin; and St. Patrick School in McEwen.
“For most kids, this will impact them and there needs to be a conversation about it, but they will be able to recover. But there will be some kids for whom sadness or fear around this does start to interfere with day-to-day life,” Smith said. “It’s normal to be impacted by something like a school shooting, to feel sad, to feel angry, to feel afraid. When you know that you need to look for additional support is when those feelings start to get in the way of daily functioning.”
Examples would be if a child stops wanting to go to school entirely, has difficulty sleeping due to nightmares or fears, has ongoing and unusual clinginess, exhibits excessive moodiness, or has decreased interest in activities that they would normally participate in.
“Those are signs that maybe the impact is bigger, and you could use some additional support to get through it,” Smith said.
For more information about counseling and emotional support through Catholic Charities, visit cctenn.org/causes/emotional-support/.