They happen often enough that discussing school shootings with your teen requires thought. Experts break down a good convo. 

By Allison Slater Tate
Photo by Rania Matar

Driving with my 16-year-old this past summer, I decided to broach the subject of the school shooting in Santa Fe, TX, that had left 10 children and teachers dead a few weeks earlier. Up until then, I hadn’t tried raising the topic with him, which nagged at me. Somehow it felt like a mom wrong that I should right. 

My son wasn’t buying. “What is there to say?” he said with a shrug, turning his face away. “I know it happened. I know it will happen again. We do drills all the time and pretend like we’re prepared. But if it happens to us, we still won’t know what to do. We still won’t be ready.” 

“I actually don’t know what to say,” I blurted, my voice cracking a little as I tried not to show him how hard I was trying to keep it together. “I’m sorry. I’m just sorry.” He nodded and put his earbuds back in, his usual signal that he was done with a line of conversation.

Forget for a moment the raging debates about political parties, gun control, the NRA and the urgent need for more and better access to mental health care in this country. It more than suffices to say that there are loving, dedicated parents with passionate feelings about all those issues. And the bottom line is that every day moms and dads of every political leaning send pieces of their hearts to school buildings where we as a society would have once assumed they would likely be safer than anywhere else—except now, not so much. School shootings are part of an American childhood, and that is both incredibly sad and terrifying.

So when the unspeakable seemingly inevitably happens, what can parents say to their teens that’s actually helpful? I asked two experts (themselves parents) for guidance on talking through horror that has no words.

First off, assume teenagers are in the know.

In other words, next time a shooting happens, don’t figure you need a way to break the news—odds are your teenager has heard already through social media, according to developmental-behavioral pediatrician David J. Schonfeld, MD, who has extensive experience working with victims of school crisis events, including shootings, and serves as director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California. “Kids become informed rapidly, sometimes very rapidly,” he notes.

Meet them where they are.

Individual kids will respond differently to news of a school shooting. Some will feel more personally affected than others, whether they’re close to the event or not, and some teens will be more open to talking about it. “Hear what they say. Are they scared? Angry? Meet them wherever they are,” offers Katherine Porterfield, PhD, a senior clinical psychologist at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital who specializes in the impact of severe trauma on children and families. Some teens will want to know that you and other adults have a plan to keep them safe at school. Others will just look for loving support, while some might feel angry or confused. Still others might want to consider activism (think Parkland, FL), such as by reaching out to media or contacting politicians. If so, parents can support those efforts to help teens feel more in control.

Listen more than you talk.

“There isn’t anything that you’re going to be able to say that will make this okay,” says Schonfeld. But what you can do is let them know that you’re there if they want more information, have specific concerns or need something they heard explained further. “I always advise to listen more than you talk,” says Porterfield. According to both doctors, the most important thing is actually not what you say, but what you do: Provide your physical presence for your teens and listen to their feelings, whatever they are, whenever they’re ready to talk about them. “It feels so good whenever someone really hears you,” says Porterfield. That principle holds true for teenagers too.

Validate the questions

It’s natural for kids to ask why someone would aim to kill others, especially children, according to Schonfeld. Adults may be concerned that they don’t have a “right” answer, but the question is often rhetorical. Teenagers are just voicing the question out loud, he says. Sharing that you wonder too and helping them figure out how to cope with uncertainty after a tragic event is a solid approach. Parents may also take it as an opportunity to share views about positive political actions that might help address root or contributory causes, or discuss religious beliefs that inform actions and reactions.

Keep it simple.

Porterfield says to not overcomplicate matters. She suggests simply reflecting back to your teen exactly what they say to you: “I hear that you’re really angry” or “I totally get that you’re sad.” Then offer appropriate support, as in, “What can I do to help?” or “Would it be all right if I give you a hug?” Reflecting back exactly tells your teen that you really want to understand what they’re feeling and underscores that you’re not assuming anything. This is more comforting than trying to fix it or telling them how they should feel or react. “These events make us feel vulnerable,” she says. “It doesn’t have to have happened to you or to anyone you know; it’s just unsettling.”

And if your child tells you they don’t want to talk about it, that’s perfectly normal too. “Some people don’t really want to discuss things that upset them at the moment, but they might want to do something else,” says Schonfeld. You can still provide important support by reminding them that you’re there for them in other ways. Maybe watch a movie together, bake cookies, play some basketball—whatever helps you connect.

Resist the temptation to say “Don’t worry."

Rather than try to brush their fears under the rug, we need to help teens figure out what to do with them. “I think we try to be strong and tell them we’re not concerned, but that’s not genuine,” says Schonfeld. When teens pick up on that, they stop talking to us about it. What’s more, if we pretend that school shootings aren’t affecting us, we’re failing to model coping skills, which is one of the most important things we can do for our kids. If you’re upset about something that’s upsetting, that’s actually healthy, he says. The way we react and cope ourselves, as the adults in the room, can absolutely influence how our children respond as well.

Admit you don’t know.

Remember, we’re not expected to have all the answers about the tragedy of school shootings. (Kids already know we don’t, Schonfeld points out.) “I don’t think I’ll ever understand why this happens” or “This just really sucks” are both adequate, acceptable statements. “That acknowledgment may be all they’re looking for from you,” says Schonfeld. It’s a key difference between you and, say, Siri.