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Student kills teacher in school attack: How to talk to kids about it

Many of us saw the terrifying news this morning of how a 13-year-old student in Spain killed his teacher with a makeshift crossbow and wounded some of his classmates. Making sense of this tragedy is hard enough for adults, but how can we explain it to our kids?

According to the BBC, this morning a 13-year-old boy, who may not even face charges because of his age, arrived tardy to school, killed his teacher with a crossbow and then wounded four others. The report also says that the pupil had spoken of killing all his teachers last week and had a list of 25 names of teachers and classmates, but his peers thought it was a joke. It’s amazingly hard to understand tragedies like these when they happen and even worse when we have our children seeing something on the news and asking us questions about why things like this happen. For those of you who can still remember, today marks the 16th anniversary of the tragic Columbine High School shooting, a day which many of us still think of with intense sorrow and disbelief.

I asked Greg Dillon, M.D., founder and president of Lower Fifth Psychiatric in New York City and an assistant professor of Psychiatry and Public Health at the Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital Cornell, for his advice on speaking to our kids about this tragedy:

The key to sharing violent news with children is empathy, which in concrete, practical terms means meeting them where they are developmentally, both emotionally and intellectually.

Three basic steps for all therapy but particularly germane to treating or even sharing news with children are:
1) Go from surface to depth, and keep it simple. “A boy in Spain brought weapons to school, and he killed a teacher.”
2) Take their pulse. After sharing the violent news, check their reactions, both intellectual (understanding) and emotional (eyes, posture, expressions). Use their reactions to empathetically navigate how deep to go or when to pull back.
3) Leave them feeling safe. Essential to any therapeutic intervention, therapy session or disclosure of shocking news is to be sure that a patient or child in this case feels safe and reassured at the end. Intellectually, answer questions. Emotionally, ask how they are feeling. But even if they can’t consciously express or describe those feelings, let them know that they are safe, loved and have the access to talk and share further thoughts or feelings.

Not much else is known about why the young teen in Spain committed this horrific crime, but as parents we can at least reassure our own children about their feelings when something like this happens in the world.

More on violence and kids

Are we desensitized to violence?
How to talk to your kids about violence
How to help kids manage their emotions

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