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Local experts offer advice on talking about school shootings

School doors
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Getty Images
Getty Images photo

Whenever another school shooting occurs, outpatient therapist Priscilla Riley hears the same question from some of her school-aged patients - “can this happen to me?”

She asks them to think about any safety measures their schools have in place.

“You're never going to lie, but you don't have to say, oh, yeah, it could happen to you at any time,” she said. “You want to give them that reassurance that your schools take the steps to make sure that we're safe in our classrooms.”

Riley, a therapist at Pocono Counseling Associates, expected to speak with some of her adolescent clients on Wednesday about the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. An 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers there on Tuesday.

Children of most ages will have questions about events like this latest mass shooting, particularly when it happens in an elementary school, Riley said. She recommended that parents or adult guardians first master their own emotions, then tailor any discussion to the child’s age.

“The younger they are the less information, and it should be kind of on an as needed basis, simple and to the point, maybe a sentence or two,” she said. “And of course, explaining what happened, not hiding it, but making sure that the child is aware that they are safe, and that their parents and others are going to keep them protected.”

For older children, Riley recommends first asking them what they have heard about the shooting and reassuring them of their safety. Summer Krochta, Vice President of Programs at the Children’s Service Center, recommends this approach for teens as well.

“You want to ask them what they've heard, and really focus on asking them to share their feelings about what they've heard,” Krochta said. “So really focusing the conversation … hearing their feelings or emotions, acknowledging that and then focusing the rest of the conversation on safety.”

Krochta recommended the National Parent Helpline as a resource for any parents struggling to speak with their children about traumatic events.

“I think everybody could use support working through situations like this, this is such a shocking incident,” she said. “It's just important to remember as a parent that if you are ever in a situation that you feel like you don't know what the proper response is, to reach out to a clinician to ask for some guidance and some support on this.”

Mental Health Hotlines and Resources

National Parent Helpline: 1-855-427-2736
PA Mental Health Resources
Luzerne-Wyoming Counties Mental Health Services
Sarah Scinto is the local host of All Things Considered on WVIA. She is a Connecticut native and graduate of King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, and has previously covered Northeastern Pennsylvania for The Scranton Times-Tribune, The Citizens’ Voice and Greater Pittston Progress.