In the aftermath: Communication is key when talking to children about recent mass shootings

Bob Wooley
bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 6/6/22

Sandy Austin, founder and executive director of B.I.O.N.I.C. (Believe it or not, I care), an outreach group dedicated to changing the atmosphere in schools by creating a climate where peers look out for each other, has counseled students through every type of tragedy imaginable.

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In the aftermath: Communication is key when talking to children about recent mass shootings

Posted

In 1949, a 28-year-old man named Howard Unruh walked through his Camden, New Jersey, neighborhood with a 9mm pistol he’d purchased at a Philadelphia sporting goods store and fatally shot 13 people and injured three more.

His crime, often referred to as a "walk of death," is notable as one of the first lone wolf mass killings in the U.S. where an automatic weapon was used.

But a 1966 University of Texas mass shooting was the first to capture the nation’s attention in a broad way, when student and former Marine sniper Charles Whitman, 25, barricaded himself inside the campus clock tower with a small arsenal of weapons and ammunition. From his deadly perch, Whitman fatally shot 14 people and injured an additional 31 on the school’s campus and surrounding streets.

In the more than five decades since Whitman’s shooting spree, the nation has experienced thousands of mass shootings, which are defined as an incident where four or more people are shot.  

In Colorado, events like the Columbine High School massacre and the Aurora theater shooting have dominated international headlines, contributing to an environment where young children and teens regularly take part in lockdown drills at school. In fact, a recent article by The Washington Post claims that more than 311,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine.

Now, a string of recent mass shootings has seen widespread reporting once again, of the faces of young, elementary school-aged victims and survivors. 

Sandy Austin was a Jeffco schools counselor for 25 years. She was working at nearby Jefferson High School when the Columbine shooting occurred. Having spent time as a teacher there earlier in her career, she was moved to immediately volunteer her time counseling Columbine students — helping them recover from what has become one of the defining mass shootings in American history.

Austin said the May 24 Uvalde, Texas, elementary school shooting that claimed the lives of 19 young children and two teachers may create questions, anxiety and a need to talk in children of all ages.  

She said parents should reach out to their school-aged children to see if they want to talk, and that parents shouldn’t be concerned about whether they feel like they have all of the answers. The important thing, she said, is establishing that connection and letting their children know they can help them work through any issues they’re having.

“'I don’t know' is a perfectly fine answer to give a child if that’s the truth,” she said. “It can give the parent the ability to say to their child, 'Let’s research it together and try to find the answer.'”

Austin, founder and executive director of B.I.O.N.I.C. (Believe it or not, I care), an outreach group dedicated to changing the atmosphere in schools by creating a climate where peers look out for each other, has counseled students through every type of tragedy imaginable.

She said her experience has taught her that no two children react the exact same way when tragedies like school shootings or peer suicides occur. And that parents shouldn’t wait for their kids to broach the subject before reaching out. 

“Kids nowadays — wherever they go, they’re thinking about if something’s going to happen,” Austin said. “Some younger kids might not want to talk about it, but they might want to play a game with parents or spend more time together. But parents should just ask their kids how they felt about what’s happened and just let them talk.”

Austin also stressed that parents should be aware of what’s happening in their child’s environment — what kind of conversations they hear or take part in and what information they engage with on social media. She also recommends letting your understanding of your child’s unique personality play a role in how you interact with them when talking about such heavy topics.

“A lot of times, boys don’t want to talk, so maybe it’s good to just go out and shoot baskets or play a game of catch. When kids are at ease doing activities like that, it may be easier to ask them how they’re feeling and if they have any unanswered questions,” she said. 

Austin said younger children may have a tendency to cling to parents more after being exposed to media about mass shooting events, while older children and teens may display the opposite reaction, often preferring to spend even more time with friends.

But she cautions that even with those older children, parents should make an effort to talk about the incident in question — not to force kids to talk, but to make sure they understand the lines of communication are open.

Working with Columbine students, she said she noticed parents being very close — not wanting to let their kids out of their sight in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. In many cases, she said, it led to a backlash of kids pushing parents away because they’d experienced the tragedy as a group, and it felt like fellow students were the only other people who could understand what they were going through.

Children might also have difficulty eating or sleeping, or may start to display contradictory behaviors as a result of fears about school shootings or taking part in lockdowns, Austin said. 

“Maybe one child is typically very quiet, but all of a sudden they’re talking a lot. Or a chatty kid may become very quiet,” she said. “That change in behavior can be a result of how they’re processing the emotions that come with being exposed to everything that’s going on around them.”

She said parents will want to be aware that news and coverage of school shootings can also trigger repressed memories of other tragedies like a death in the family, a suicide or a friend dying in an accident.

Finally, Austin said parents too, can have a rough time dealing with emotions from seeing violence perpetrated on young children. She said parents should feel free to call venues or event organizers to inquire about security measures in place to keep children safe.

Making sure children know they can always call a parent or other family member to be picked up if they’re in a situation where they don’t feel safe is always a great idea as well.

“If you ever get a text or call from your kid in a situation like that, drop everything to go pick them up, because that trust that you’ll be there for them (and that) is so important,” she said.

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