Thoughts from the Therapy Chair with Joe Martino: Talking with Kids about School Shootings

With the holiday seasons being here, today’s topic seems almost obscene. And yet, I feel it is something that we need to discuss. I had planned on writing a post about watching our mental health expenditures over the holiday season. I wanted to write something about making sure that we keep a good monitor on how we’re doing mentally during all of the stress that naturally comes at this time of year.

Suicide attempts tend to climb significantly this time of year. And those things are worthy of much discussion.

And yet…

And yet, with the school shooting at Oxford High School last month, our time spent together would be served better by discussing how we talk to our kids about school shootings.

While I want to spend the majority of my time talking to parents whose children have to go to school and try to learn with the potential threat of a school shooting in their mind, I do want to mention to parents who may be worried about things their children are doing or saying.

Like all thoughts of harm, take them seriously. The best thing you can do is get your child help.

To be clear, simply because a child searches for ammo or some such online doesn’t mean they are considering a school shooting. Always examine disturbing drawings and seek professional help. Take all expressed threats seriously. Don’t downplay them.

Don’t wait forty-eight hours; get help right away.

How do I talk to my kids about this stuff? 

A common question that other counselors and I are fielding right now is parents asking how they talk to their kids about all of the things going on in schools.

The most straightforward and most challenging answer is to ask them how they are doing. Ask your kids what their thoughts are when they go to school. Ask them how they are feeling.

And then listen.

That’s the hard part. Just listen without interrupting. Don’t try to fix it with some verbal judo that will magically make it better.

Your kids will see right through that. Instead, practice sitting with them in the discomfort. Ask them if you can do anything to help them but prepare for them to say no. Most kids don’t need you to have answers; they want you to listen and validate.

That might sound like just saying, “That must be hard.” Or perhaps, you would say, “I can only imagine the stress that you must feel.”

Those are validating statements that do not offer solutions. They convey that you are listening and that you recognize their emotions. There is something incredibly healing about experiencing someone hear what you are feeling and just listening.

As parents, we often want to have all the answers for our kids. We want to be able to fix everything.

Life has a way of showing us that we cannot fix everything for them. There are no magic fixes for a child’s anxiety. Events happen that we cannot control, and our answers will not always be adequate.

Feeling inadequate can often lead to anger.

It is vital to keep our anger in check when talking to our children. We all have opinions and thoughts about all sides on issues like this. You may be tempted to vent your anger and your children’s views regarding people who think differently than you think about the topic.

It’s important to share your opinion with your children. It’s also important to teach our children how we talk about and treat people we disagree with, especially on emotionally charged issues.

If we are going to heal from the identity politics and ideological divisions that are currently ravaging our country, we as parents will need to lead the way with our actions.

So many people talk about doing better and behaving better. Sadly, too many of those people also completely throw those ideals out when an issue like this comes up.

Children will follow our example far more than they will our advice.

Remember, the critical part here is to make sure that you are present with your children and model appropriate behavior for them.

Joe Martino is a counselor with Joe Martino Counseling Network.  He has locations in Lowell, Grand Rapids, Greenville, and Grandville.  For more information about Joe and his business, check their website or Facebook page.  He and the rest of the counselors and staff are eager to help those in need.

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