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Talk to Your Kids About Shootings

Words can't describe the loss suffered by the parents and families of the Virginia Tech students who were killed two days ago. Yet as parents, we need to find the words to talk to their kids -- particularly those who are school-aged -- about this tragedy.

The Mental Health Association offers a full list of tips to help you talk with your kids:

* Talk honestly about the shootings and share your own feelings. Save the graphic details for talks with adults, however. And take your cues from your child.

* Encourage your kids to talk about their feelings and worries.

* Limit television, particularly news shows focused on the shooting and aftermath.

* Watch for nonverbal reactions. Kids may say they are fine, but act out or become withdrawn.

* If you are concerned about your child's reaction or behavior, get help. Call the school counselor or a mental health professional.

Also important is teaching your child that he/she can help keep school safe by telling a school adult or you about any incident that might threaten students' safety and by paying attention during school lockdown drills. Incidents to report can range from seeing a stranger in the school to hearing a threat made by another child.

How are your children responding to the Virginia Tech shootings?

Today's Talkers: Live Discussion with "The Feminine Mistake" Author Leslie Bennetts ... Antidepressants Help More Kids Than They Harm ... For Some Teens, A Checkup Isn't Macho

By Stacey Garfinkle |  April 18, 2007; 12:01 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Teens , Tweens
Previous: Drive the Money Point Home | Next: Abstinence: All Talk No Action


My 5th grade kids were surprisingly well-informed today, I assume by their parents. One kid, however, kept telling the other kids that this happened because the shooter "didn't ask God first". I'm not sure that's the healthiest approach if we're to help our kids avoid such incidents later in a real setting.

Posted by: Kat | April 18, 2007 12:16 AM | Report abuse

Kat, I don't get what that kid was saying either. But I would talk to my daughter if she were older (3 years old) about it. I think I would explain that this was a terrible tragedy but will not happen to her. That her school is very safe and if she ever felt one of her classmates were in trouble to come tell a teacher or parent.

Posted by: foamgnome | April 18, 2007 7:35 AM | Report abuse

What age do you think is old enough to talk to your kids? School-age would include kindergarten and that seems pretty young. My daughter is 7 and in second grade. She doesn't watch the news or read the paper and I typically don't share gruesome news with her. My natural instinct is to shelter her for as long as possible. But, sometimes she hears about it at school. Someone shared the Amish school slayings a few months ago as their news item. Why is it necessary to talk to such young kids about these tragedies?

Posted by: PT Fed Mof2 | April 18, 2007 8:06 AM | Report abuse

My fifth grade son's teacher is a recent Virginia Tech grad, and so we told him a little because he wanted to know why his teacher and the other teachers were so upset. My husband thought we'd let our kids plant a tree in our yard in memory of the students and professors who died, which I thought was a nice idea. I teach at a university and it didn't really strike me until this morning that my kids are now worried about my safety when I go to work. Not sure what to tell them about that.

Posted by: Armchair Mom | April 18, 2007 8:14 AM | Report abuse

Because if we do not share news like this from an early age - when they become older they will be SHOCKED by the things that they "begin to discover" when they are old enough to watch the news, talk about current events etc..

Do you think that children were sheltered from WW1 or WW2 or the Great Depression? Too much sheltering is not a good thing - we are teaching our children to be book smart and street stupid! What about Sept 11? Should we not discuss this event with our children? Children will learn about it from other sources - isn't better that a parent discusses it first in a contolled enviroment?

Posted by: Mrs. K | April 18, 2007 8:17 AM | Report abuse

My children are not responding to this at all. At age 5 and 8, they don't know about it. I listened to the radio while making dinner, they played a game in the living room. I wore my VT sweatshirt today, but that isn't uncommon. I am deeply saddened by this, shocked because I lived in West Ambler Johnston in the early 1980s, and know people who work/live in Blacksburg. But it really hasn't touched me personally, and I doubt my children have any knowledge of the massacre. Yet. I suspect that they will hear about it from an older child at SACC. If/when it comes up, we'll discuss it, but I see no need to bring it up. They are familiar with death from family members dying and books about death (we have several, and read them just as we do the other books they have). I try to make death a matter of fact kind of thing. It's all part of the life cycle. It's sad for you when someone close to you dies, because you may miss the person. There is no reason to be sad for the person who died, or to fear your own death. There will always be someone to care for you, and it will probably be me. I intend to live to spoil your children. They have a book about a boy who died, and asked if they would die. I said probably not until they are very old, because most people live until they are grown, with children and grandchildren.

I would specifically not tell them that this sort of violence won't happen to them at their school. I don't have any control over whether it will happen. I would say that *most* people never experience this sort of thing, because that is true. I mean, we hear about the horrific shootings and other tragedies, but most of us live our whole lives without being present at a tragedy. I don't mean to minimize the pain and sorrow we all feel, but the intent is to reduce fear of that happening to them.

Posted by: single mother by choice | April 18, 2007 8:55 AM | Report abuse

My parents told my 7 year old about this. I was rather dismayed as my husband and I feel that this tragedy should not have entered her sphere of reality. We share some news items with her now that she is in first grade but tend to leave extreme violence out of the repertoire. Her main concern was for the "kids." She was very relieved to find that these "kids" are actually adults (as far as she is concerned). She knows her school is safe due to increased security this year (in the form of extra private patrols, cameras, and a new gate at the main entrance to campus). She was sad that the boy who perpetrated the act was so sad that he felt he must do it but otherwise she was able to move on with her day.

Posted by: 21117 | April 18, 2007 9:04 AM | Report abuse

I'm going to agree with Mrs. K. While they don't need to watch CNN all day there are a lot of truly awful things that happen in this world to a lot of people. Why is it o.k. for a child to starve to death, but not for my child to know about it. A few miles from where we live there are children the ages of mine who live in fear of getting shot. On cold nights we talk about families who don't have shelter. We talk about these things with them so they understand that they don't live in a vacuum of perfectness and I hope to develop a social conscience in them by making them aware of the suffering in the world.

As for their own safety, I never tell them that daddy and I will never die or that nothing will ever happen to them because I cannot guarantee that. I tell them that we make healthy choices in our lives, drive safely, wear our seatbelts in hopes that we will live a long time. I ensure that there will always be someone to take care of them if something were to happen to mommy and daddy. I tell them that everyone at their school works very hard to keep them safe and it is not very likely to happen to them. When they are a little older, I will talk to them about specifically what to do if a situation like that occurs.

Posted by: moxiemom | April 18, 2007 9:16 AM | Report abuse

For those of you who are of the opinion to not "shelter" the kids and tell them about the VT shooting, what do you think is the right age? 7? 6? 5?

A couple of posters "PT Mom, single mother" have a 7, 5 and 8 year old (repsectively) and have chosen not to tell. As a parent of a 6 year old, I agree with that.

To those that want to tell their children, I ask when? At age 10 - sure. At age 4? No way. I'm thinking 9 or 10 is an appropriate age where the kids can process the events rationally and have a better understanding of what happened. Any younger, and I'm afraid you're causing them too much unnecessary worry.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 18, 2007 9:24 AM | Report abuse

At what age do you reveal to kids that we live in the most gun-ridden, most gun murders per capita country in the world??? Our gun-slingin' wild west mentality IS America - ask your President.

Posted by: Chris | April 18, 2007 9:26 AM | Report abuse

I agree with those who say that very young children don't need to know about this. My five and two year olds don't watch TV and unless someone else tells my five year old at kindergarten, I do not feel it's appropriate to discuss it with her. It's not a matter of "sheltering" kids from real life, it's a question of waiting until they are developmentally old enough to process ideas such as children starving without becoming convinced that they too will starve. Toddlers and early school age kids are still the center of their own universes to the point where they really can't understand that things happen to other people and won't happen to them.

Children who lived through WWI and WWII were experiencing those events themselves, not being told about them. That's different.

Posted by: There is such a thing as too young | April 18, 2007 9:30 AM | Report abuse

The MHA website says to explain what happened, without too many details. A student shot more than 30 people. even that simple fact is horrible, even without the "details."

Posted by: SSMD | April 18, 2007 9:41 AM | Report abuse

I tend to not tell my children all gruesome news and after 9/11 we no longer watch news on TV (could NOT stand the constant footage of the plane crashing into the tower) but I also don't hide bad news from them. If they are old enough to ask questions, then we answer them as best we can. I can never say these things will not happen to her because I can't guarantee that.

When we had the sniper attacks, my daughter was in kindergarten or first grade. While we didn't tell her after the first incident, when a security detail showed up in front of her school every morning, she asked why. We told her about the sniper. She asked about our safety and we talked about that.

When my daughter heard of 9/11 and Bin Laden (she was 7 and in 2nd grade), she had a lot of questions. My husband answered all her questions.

Posted by: Mom of 2 | April 18, 2007 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Montgomery County schools sent home a letter, and it was talked about a little bit (my son's words) at school. So my 6yr old, and 9 yr old both heard about it.

So, we talked about it at home, talked about the importance of taking the 'code red' drills seriously. But, at the same time we also talked about that while tragedies like this happen, the chances of it happening at his school are slim. But, I didn't say would never happen. He would call me out on that one.

Posted by: prairie dog | April 18, 2007 10:17 AM | Report abuse

We live in Blacksburg. We will not be telling our 3 and 5-year-olds. They were already in lockdown at their preschool during the crisis and were completely unaware (thanks to excellent, calm teachers). The only other place they could hear about it is from the neighbors' children, who have all been told not to talk about it with each other, especially the younger children.

Posted by: Regular poster, anon for today | April 18, 2007 10:21 AM | Report abuse

my son told me that the flags were flying at half mast today. i said that it was because some kids died. i thought that this might be a good time to talk about what happened. he said that it had something to do with security. i left it at that. this is a case where i'm letting him show me whether or not he wants to talk about it. while i am sheltering him by not talking about it, i am quite willing to talk about things if he asks. we have talked about death before. i figure that he will know when he's ready to talk about things.

Posted by: quark | April 18, 2007 10:34 AM | Report abuse

We don't watch the news (we get our news from the web), so our eight year old didn't hear about it until the Nats came onto the field wearing VT hats last night. We first explained that a lot of people died at Virginia Tech on Monday, and that the Nationals were honoring them. I then explained that most mental illness is simply sad, but that once in awhile someone is mentally ill in such a way that he doesn't connect with other people or society at all. And that the vast majority of the time nothing very bad happens--he might not have a very good life and he might spend some time in jail, but he doesn't really hurt anyone. But once in a very long while someone like that gets very very angry and tries to kill people. Our son got it, paraphrasing: "He went mad."

We let him direct the conversation after that, answering him simply and honestly. Yes, some of the victims were teachers. No, none of the victims were police officers. He absorbed it and asked for lots of huggles, which he got. He didn't exhibit any sadness or other issues afterwards.

We recently told him about WWII and the Holocaust; I am thinking I may tell him tonight of Liviu Librescu and the kids that held the door shut, to try and show him that while there are bad people in the world there are many more good people.

Posted by: wickedstepmama | April 18, 2007 10:36 AM | Report abuse

My dd is 5 and ds is 3. At dinner Wednesday night we said grace and I included a prayer for those affected at VA Tech. My dd asked what happened and I told her that a bad person killed some kids at college (not exact words). Her babysitter is at college (at VA Tech) and asked if she was okay. I said yes. I talked to her. DD asked about her friends. I was honest and said that we dont know. I answered whatever questions she had with the basic information. My ds fell asleep at the table, so he was not even paying attention. That is how I handled it. FYI

Posted by: Marie | April 18, 2007 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Kids should be told, following the advice posted to leave out details. Parents have the obligation to raise healthy, productive contributors to society and while it breaks the heart to explain to children that the world is scary, it's probably worse to keep them in a bubble and have them grow up thinking that their safe home is standard across America and the world.

Posted by: Patrick | April 18, 2007 12:08 PM | Report abuse

"At dinner Wednesday night "

Today is Wednesday.........

"My ds fell asleep at the table"

Good for him! First sensible thing I've read in a while.

Posted by: Jake | April 18, 2007 12:11 PM | Report abuse

i told my 10-year-old that something terrible happened, told him the numbers, said grown ups didn't understand it either, but that he might see some people upset about it, and if he had questions to ask me. He asked if this had anything to do with marcus vick. Not so much, i told him. i wish i were 10.

Posted by: bob | April 18, 2007 3:05 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand the not telling kids due to age? What happens if mom dies at age 3? Are you just going to go on like she's on a vacation and that's it?

It's not about protecting their innocence (a myth parents love to perpetuate), it's about showing them the world in a real context WHILE also nurturing them and trying to do what you can to provide them with a sense of security.

I don't think you should show a 5 year old a video of a guy shooting another guy in the head and laughing about it- but you can talk to them one on one about how some people aren't well, or aren't happy, or aren't good people and sometimes they do things to hurt others. Every kid can understand the concept of another angry/bad kid (heck almost every kid IS a bad/angry/upset kid who wants to lash out at some point).

And you can talk about how things can be changed for the better, talk about how it's important you talk to adults if ANYTHING seems wrong, even if from another adult.

To omit these basic truths would be a disservice IMO.

Posted by: Liz D | April 18, 2007 3:56 PM | Report abuse

You don't have kids do you? 5 yrs olds are generally not capable of processing a mentally ill person shot and killed over 30 people and then killed himself. I will not be discussing it w/ my DD. Perhaps if she were 9 or 10.

Posted by: to Liz | April 18, 2007 4:06 PM | Report abuse

I think that's a great idea, Liz D: if mom dies, tell the kids she's on vacation. Who knows, maybe she is.

Posted by: bob | April 18, 2007 4:21 PM | Report abuse

the death of a parent or somebody close to them is very different from what happened at tech. let me ask you, would you force a child to process information that they were not able to handle just to tell them THE TRUTH? i told my son what i thought he was able to handle based on his age & his questions/comments. this applies to things like what happened at tech. it applies to questions about how babies are made. it applies to questions about what happened when granny died. i took my cues from my son & took it from there. when he asks me about 9/11 or the sniper or concentration camps i will deal with those questions when they come up.

Posted by: quark | April 18, 2007 4:31 PM | Report abuse

As I said before:

Every kid can understand the concept of another angry/bad kid who hurts others(heck almost every kid IS a bad/angry/upset kid who wants to lash out at some point).

Posted by: Liz D | April 18, 2007 5:10 PM | Report abuse

no liz what you said was you couldn't understand why we weren't telling our kids the truth. what went on at tech was a murderous rampage not one bad/angry/upset kid lashing out. aren't your own words slightly less than the truth or are you modifying your words so that a child could understand them which is pretty much what most of us said we were doing?

Posted by: quark | April 18, 2007 5:54 PM | Report abuse

My child is not old enough to talk yet and has always been watched over by us, his parents, or trusted relatives. But when he gets to the age when he will be out of our direct supervision (kindergarten, preschool perhaps), we will start teaching him a little of the harsh truths of life and whatever survival skills seem appropriate.

Perhaps I wouldn't tell him about murderers and mental illness. But I might say that there are bad people in the world and because of that, certain precautions should be taken at all times. As early as possible, I want him to know his full name, his parents full names, our phone number, how to dial 911. I want him to recognize what are aberrant behaviors and what to do about it (avoid person/hide/run away, call for help and always to tell me about it no matter what). I want him to recognize dangerous items (guns, knives, etc) and know not to play with them and to avoid people who are using them. I want him to know that his safety is the most important thing and that he doesn't need to listen to all adults, just because they are adults, just adults in authority and then, only within reason.

Sure I'd like him to keep his innocence but more than that, I want him to know how to think independently and to be able to rely on his own judgment for protection. It is alot to ask of a young child, but just because children are young doesn't mean that they won't meet up with bad folks.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 18, 2007 6:03 PM | Report abuse

My mother is mentally ill and has been in and out of various institutions for the last 42 years.

My sons know of Grandma's condition. They're 14 and 9 now, but they've been aware since they were toddlers.

I think each parent has to look at their child, and what circumstances are affecting the kid's life, and make their best judgement of what to say, and how to say it.

We haven't talked to our kids about the VT tragedy because it simply hasn't come up.

Posted by: Sue | April 18, 2007 7:08 PM | Report abuse


I agree with quark and others. I have not told my 5-year-old about the shootings. Why bring them up if he hasn't? If he had, I would have sat with him and talked about it in language appropriate for him but away from my 3-year-old. Five-year-old often cuts pictures out of the newspaper in the mornings, but thankfully didn't notice the coverage today and ask about the pictures.

A family death/tragedy is much different than one that doesn't affect a preschooler's direct world. We had to deal with a major household trauma when my eldest was 3. Our pediatrician taught us to help him face that head-on because otherwise his imagination would make it worse than it was. And the pediatrician was right. As soon as we walked him through the reality, he was much more able to cope and we were more able to help him.

Posted by: Stacey Garfinkle | April 18, 2007 8:59 PM | Report abuse

The problem with telling young kids about this (assuming they don't find out through other means) is that young kids lack the cognitive skills to place such information in a proper perspective. Their sense of reality, their comprehension of risk, and even their ability to judge distance (as in VT is x miles away) is simply not in place like an adult's.

Therefore, telling young kids about an awful event like this may unnecessarily scare them and worry them. Remember: These are the same kids who can be frightened by the dark, sleeping alone in their rooms, thunderstorms at night, etc. If they can't see how those things are irrational, how can you expect them to put the VT killings into proper perspective? It's not easy.

Obviously, if a child finds out about what happened, you'll have to help them interpret it. But, generally speaking, here's how I see it: If they're old enough to understand and put it in its proper perspective, they'll probably hear about it on their own (overheard from news, over heard from you, the newspaper, kids at school, etc.) and you'll be able to talk to them about it. On the other hand, if the kid doesn't find out about it (or doesn't even pay attention when they overhear you talking about it), you don't need to bring it up.

I mean, frankly, some of you sound like you want to take your 7 year old who was playing happily outside and purposely sit him down to explain about this massacre. That's really bizarre and unnecessary.

Posted by: Ryan | April 18, 2007 9:21 PM | Report abuse

Hi Quark & Stacy,

I think as long as there TRULY is an open dialogue environment at place, then it's ok not to bring it up directly or have a big talk about it.

I was talking more about the parents who suggested their kids couldn't/shouldn't be exposed- and if somehow they were, that it's still not something to talk about.

I think parents are often too lazy/scared/untrained to know how to talk about the sensitive topics and then foist it onto the kids in a "When he's ready, he'll come to me" attitude.

The faults here being that kids certainly aren't trained on how to do that, the kids can pick UP that the parents don't want to talk about it and thus feel it's something to avoid, and it abdicates the responsibility of the parent to actively push their child towards understanding and good judgement of the world they live in.

Are all parents and kids like this? No. But far too many are and so I tend to react negatively to the "don't bring it up until they do" parenting approach.

But I of course admit that there aren't clear answers here. I was encouraged to read Anne Frank's Diary at age 8. I could read it all and I knew what the words meant, but I had no idea what this was about- I couldn't process it. It was only years later that I could understand the concepts necessary to bring it all together and realize the horror. So I get that there isn't always a reason to bring everything up with kids and get them to understand.

As long as it's truly a case of not ready/no need and not a case of "I don't know what to do so I'll avoid it" then I understand.

Posted by: Liz D | April 19, 2007 2:40 PM | Report abuse

I hadn't planned to address this with my children, ages 5 and 8. But yesterday (Friday) morning, the 8yo asked why I was wearing my VT sweatshirt. I knew she must know something, so I told her that a sad thing had happened on Monday, that someone had hurt people at Tech, and a lot of people died. I began to cry when I said this, and I said that I was sad about it and I was wearing the sweatshirt because I love Tech so much. On the way home from school that evening, she told me that she knew someone who died--students from the nearby high school come to her elem to work as teacher's aides for a couple of hours a week, and one of the students who died had been placed in her class last year. I was really glad that I had told her about the incident before she heard about it from her teacher.

Posted by: later | April 21, 2007 5:19 PM | Report abuse

My wife and I didn't plan on discussing the VT shooting with our daughter who is in second grade. However, to our disbelief, her teacher discussed it with the class without prior notification to the parents nor notification afterwards.

I was very upset with the teacher but the school will not discipline her for her actions.

Posted by: Brad P. | April 23, 2007 1:15 PM | Report abuse

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