Talking to kids about Uvalde

scared child

The horrific tragedy has haunted parents, educators, and civilians across our country as we navigate our own feelings and figure out how to talk to our kids about what happened in Uvalde. Sometimes it feels like no matter what I write, no matter how many discussions I have about empathy, no matter how many principals and superintendents I talk to about social and emotional health, that we are no closer to solving this problem than when the Columbine High School Massacre occurred in 1999.

But that simply isn’t true.

Every year, schools invest more in social and emotional learning. Students are learning more about their emotions than ever before, and they’re learning skills to communicate and manage them with the support of their peers and community. It’s more and more common for young people to identify and discuss their anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that used to be taboo topics. So while adults may feel too stunned and saddened to find the “right” thing to say, here are 3 important reminders when talking to kids about Uvalde: 

  1. It’s okay to not be okay. What happened at Uvalde, and what has happened far too many times in schools in the United States, is not okay. There’s no way to rationalize and explain why an 18 year old would commit such a heinous act or why our schools and children become targets. Our children are looking to us to understand what’s happening in the world around them, and our emotional experiences are highly influential on our children. It’s important that adults give ourselves space and time to process our own emotions, and use that as an opportunity to demonstrate emotional expression and regulation for our own children. Parents do not need to be beacons of stoicism in a moment that has brought our nation to its knees. In fact, I think remembering that it’s okay to not be okay and giving ourselves patience, time, and space to feel what we’re feeling is the kind of emotional strength our children need from us right now. 
  2. Let your child lead the conversation. Kids may have a lot of questions and confusion around what happened in Uvalde and what it means for their own safety. Open the conversation by asking them what they know about what happened, and ask them how they feel about it and what questions they have. Don’t worry about ensuring they have every detail covered; in fact, depending on their ages, there may be details that are simply inappropriate as they are too difficult for small children to comprehend. What’s important is that your child feels seen and heard. Ask them how they feel about what they’ve learned and what they think they need to feel supported. You can help them identify how they’re feeling using emotional vocabulary words, and support them to process how to regulate their feelings. Simple prompts are highly effective; asking questions like “How does that make you feel? Do you remember a time when you’ve felt sad, angry, confused before? What is something that makes you feel better when you feel sad, angry, confused? What is something that we can do together today that would feel good?” Your role should be to listen and prompt your child to open up and share more. As your children ask you more questions, stick to simple facts that are age-appropriate. 
  3. Maintain routines and structures. This has felt like a blur for many of us trying to make sense of yet another unthinkable act in our schools. But this is where routines and structures are designed to support us. It’s critical to maintain your routine despite how challenging it may feel, and it’s especially important for your children. Keep regular bedtimes and evening routines, using it as an opportunity to be fully present with your children. Start your day the way you normally do, and lean on your daily routine to support you even if you don’t understand how to keep going. We are all feeling big, overwhelming feelings right now. Small routines like eating meals at a regular time or taking the dog on a walk in the evenings keep us grounded in our day to day lives as we try to process what has happened and is happening in our larger world. 

Kids are looking to us, their parents and educators, for guidance and support as they try to understand what has happened and what it means for their safety. Because of the growing emphasis on social and emotional skill development in schools, children are learning to communicate and manage their emotions with the support of their family, peers, and community. Parents can help kids process their feelings by remembering to care for their own wellbeing, actively listening, and maintaining regular routines. It is compassion and empathy that will carry us forward, hopefully to a reality where we don’t need to talk with our kids about another school shooting. 

By Sara Potler LaHayne