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Children's Wisconsin psychologist on how to talk to kids about school shootings

People pay respects at a memorial for victims of the mass shooting outside Robb Elementary School June 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
People pay respects at a memorial for victims of the mass shooting outside Robb Elementary School June 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.

Mass shootings are plaguing America and their affect on schools has been devastating. Late last month, an armed man killed nineteen young children and two teachers in a massacre that shocked the nation. That was just one of more than 200 school shootings that have happened this year alone.

For reference, there have only been 157 days in the year, so far.

Many parents are finding it difficult to talk with their kids about what’s happening in schools around the nation, but Dr. Jenny Walczak says there are ways to approach the subject and help kids handle the anxiety and fear that many of us are feeling. Walczak is the clinical director of mental and behavioral health at Children’s Wisconsin and she shares more.

"The general consensus is it's just been a pile on for kids. It's public knowledge that we had a mental health crisis before the pandemic and then we have the pandemic that really accelerated this mental health crisis. Kids are just not doing well. We're continuing to see an increase number of kiddos coming through the emergency room presenting with mental and behavioral health concerns, alarming rates of anxiety, depression, and we can't provide services quick enough, it seems," she says.

It's important to acknowledge that when parents seek out mental health services, they're often already in crisis, Walczak continues. It can be challenging to talk about hard issues for students who are exposed via social media and TV.

The advice Walczak gives to parents is to start with where their child is at — finding out what they know is critical.

"Ask them what they've heard, what their fears are, what their questions are — just so you can get that pulse before you dive in and start giving them more information than they need. We don't want to give them information that there is going to alarm them or make them more anxious than they already are. So, it's really starting that conversation with just asking your kid what they've heard," she says.

In these traumatic situations, having a resilient adult who can help provide a sense of safety to the child is also very important. Walczak notes that adults need to check themselves, their feelings, and their own anxiety and think about how they can provide children with concrete information and ways to feel safe.

She says parents can also reassure kids that there are people trying to make schools safer and ask them about their own experiences that they're having in school to help combat anxiety.

"We're not going to take away the active shooter drills, there are many larger things that are going to need to happen. I think before we can say that this is never going to happen again, if that will ever be a reality — we have to unpack what that fear is, and then helping your kid cope with that anxiety. We may have some kids who are going to experience some anxiety around this event, but with time, with having conversations, it's gonna go away and things, you know, life is going to resume," says Walczak.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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