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How to talk to young kids about school shooting anxiety

After a string of high-profile mass shootings, some parents are facing anxieties with their kids back in school.

WASHINGTON — After a number of high-profile mass shootings this year, including an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, parents are faced once again with anxieties about their children's safety.

School shootings are tough subjects to dissect, especially with younger kids. Some parents have taken measures of bringing those conversations to the home, such as an Oklahoma mom whose viral TikTok video showed how she practiced with her 5-year-old son what to do during a school shooting.

But what methods may be best when discussing school shootings with young children and when should these conversations take place?

Dr. Deborah Beidel, the Executive Director for UCF RESTORES, a clinical research center specializing in PTSD treatment and diagnosis, said parents should approach these conversations realistically. 

While school shootings remain statistically rare -- accounting for less than 1% of the annual U.S. gun deaths -- the conversations shouldn't be avoided.

How do I explain what lockdown drills are? Are my kids too young to know about school shootings?

Delicate subjects, such as school shootings, are hard to discuss with young children, so it's imperative to present information in "a developmentally appropriate way," Beidel explained. 

Dr. Amie Newins, UCF RESTORES Director of Center for Research and Education in Sexual Trauma, recommends that parents emphasize teaching kids skills for safety rather than emphasizing an imminent danger. Much like in the way parents tackle concepts like "stranger danger," these conversations should focus on how to keep safe and how kids can help in these situations. 

"Now I don't think we have to give them a lot of information. I don't think we have to talk about what shooting does to the body or those kinds of things," Beidel said. "We can talk about intruders, we don't even have to talk about shooting."

A good way to start a conversation with children is during an activity, such as coloring, as it lessens the pressure. Rather than heading straight into discussing school shootings, Dr. Beidel recommends easing into the conversation with a question and follow the children's lead. 

What you should avoid

One thing to watch for is extremes. On one hand, parents shouldn't avoid talking about the topic, especially if they notice anxious behaviors in children. However, talking about it too much or forcing kids to talk can leave a negative impact.

"The best thing is to allow children to talk, don't try and force them to talk about it if they don't want to talk about it, and monitor how much you talk to your children about these types of events," Beidel added.  

In terms of practicing lockdown drills at home, Newins and Beidel recommend parents avoid bringing that practice home as it creates too much emphasis on the possibilities of a school shooting. 

Practicing lockdown drills at home would be like having a school fire drill at home, Beidel said.

RELATED: Tips for dealing with anxiety stemming from violence

Calming anxieties

Beidel recommends parents dealing with these anxieties recognize that it's normal to be on edge after high-profile incidents.

One way parents can relieve their stress about safety is to research what procedures are in effect at the school. For example, checking if visitors have to check into the office first or if school doors remain locked.

Anxious parents can also benefit from discussing their stresses, whether that be with friends, religious groups or even a mental health provider.

Some parents may have trouble sleeping, notice increased anxiety when dropping off their child or worry about their kids' safety. It's important to realize when these symptoms are becoming permanent or interfering with daily life, as it may be time for help from a mental health professional. 

"They take their child out of school frequently, or they can't concentrate at work because they're so worried about their child at school, or they're exhausted because they can't sleep at all at night," Dr. Newins said. "Those would all be signs that a parent should consider seeking treatment for themselves."

Calming anxieties can look different from person-to-person, but the key is do things that make you feel more in control, Dr. Beidel said. 

"So for some of us, political activism might be the way to go. For other people, it might be running for PTA or PTO and becoming the president, then making sure those changes are implicated at your school. "

RELATED: A parent's guide to mental health as school starts back up

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