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It’s hard to find words in the wake of tragedy. The death of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Middle School in Uvalde, TX due to gun violence is just the latest in a long line of school shootings in the US over the past several decades. Knowing how to talk to children about these events is a challenge. But for foster parents, this challenge is further exacerbated. Children in foster care usually carry their own trauma, may have experienced violence themselves, and may not yet have a strong enough bond with their foster parents for them to be a trusted place.

With this in mind, we’ve assembled a few tips for how to talk to children in foster care about school shootings. It’s an article we wish we didn’t have to write, but we hope it proves helpful as you help them navigate this traumatic event.

Start by asking questions

Open-ended questions help set the tone for the conversation and let the kids show you what they need. Rather than starting a conversation with statements like, “I’m sure you’re feeling scared” or “I know this has to be hard for you”, try questions like, “What have you heard about this?”, “How are you feeling?”, or “Are there any questions that you have for me?” Don’t assume what their emotions are, or that they will mirror your own. Kids who have experienced repeated trauma may be highly triggered by this event. It is also possible that they are so used to things like this happening in their own life that it doesn’t even register as a major event. Knowing your child’s trauma history and observing their behavior in addition to asking questions, can help you know how much/little they need to talk.

Use age-appropriate language

For children under seven years old, using concrete language, simple sentences, and not oversharing details about the event is key to helping them. If they don’t know much about the event, or haven’t heard anything at all, try not to expose them to additional information. It is best to try and make the day as normal as possible for them, but watch for signs of distress and be available to offer comfort as needed.

Older kids are likely to know more about the situation, especially if they have been talking with friends or reading information on the internet. Ask them if/what they have heard, and offer corrections to misinformation if you need to. Allow them to express themselves, and be honest about your own feelings without asking them to carry them. It’s not a good time to overshare about what you are experiencing, but to listen to how they are feeling. It’s also best not to pressure them to talk if they do not want to, but to reassure them that you are available if they are needing support.

One reminder: youth in foster care may be developmentally behind their peers, so knowing what they can handle is key to choosing the best approach.

Validate feelings and offer support

Youth in foster care often need extra reassurance that they are safe, loved, and secure. Making sure that they know it is okay to be sad, angry, numb, etc. can help them stay open and process their emotions with you rather than trying to deal with them on their own. All feelings are welcome. Remind them of ways that they can comfort themselves or deescalate their emotions before they become overwhelming. You can also share your own emotions in solidarity, though it is best to not convey the full depth of your strong emotions so as to not cause them additional fear. Do not overshare.

Find ways to give them agency

Events like this often leave youth feeling powerless/afraid. Going over safety drills and precautions and bringing up ways their school has planned to address this issue can give them some level of reassurance. It may also be helpful to find ways you can get involved to try and make a positive impact. Contacting representatives, supporting organizations that seek to reduce gun violence, or attending vigils together can allow them to feel that they are part of finding a solution.
We know that it’s a heavy weight to be an emotional support for kids in foster care while you are also carrying your own fear, sadness, anger, and overwhelm.

FosterAdopt Connect is here to connect you with resources and support to help you and the youth in your care during this time. Please reach out to information@fosteradopt.org or call 816-350-0215 to speak to us about your needs. We’re in this together.

Additional resources:

Tips to Talk with Children about Violence from the National Association of School Psychologists

How to Manage Your Own Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting from the American Psychological Association

A handout on Helping Children Cope with Terrorism (multiple languages available)

Age-Appropriate Ways to Talk about School Shootings from Common Sense Media

Open-Ended Questions to Discuss School Shootings from Verywell Family