How to cope with school shootings as a parent

School shootings are a routine and horrifying part of life in America – and they're taking a heavy toll on parents. Firearms are now the leading cause of death for children and teens, so it's normal if you're struggling with anxiety and fear about sending your child to school after a mass shooting or another traumatic event. But there are things you can do: Learn about your school's precautionary measures, focus on positive school experiences, and channel your concern into action. Also, while your child may need reassurance, it's important to care for your own mental health, too. Share your feelings with friends and family and stick to your regular healthy habits and routines.

Upset mom talking to worried daughter
Photo credit: iStockphoto

If you're grappling with how to handle sending your child back to school after another school shooting in this country, you're not alone.

After hearing about the most recent school shooting, one BabyCenter mom isn't sure she will ever send her child to school. "My baby is only almost 6 months and I can’t even imagine ever sending her to school at this point."

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Another mom is heartbroken as she thinks about how much her kids love school. "I have a teenager in high school and two middle schoolers and I pray every day that they come home safe. I'd love to pull them out and homeschool but they love school. They love being social with kids their age and being super involved in clubs and sports. It's a tough spot to be in because I'm scared to death." 

Since 2018, there have been 157 school shootings in the United States in which at least one person was injured or killed. In 2022, there were 51 school shootings resulting in injuries or deaths. So far in 2023, there have been 13. 

A 2022 Pew Research poll showed 32 percent of parents were very or extremely worried about a shooting occurring at their child's school. 

The terrifying possibility of your child being the victim of a school shooting is very unlikely, but it's hard to convince yourself of that when shootings continue to happen. It's easy to imagine that your child's school could very well be next, despite the odds against it. Here are some things you can do to cope with your fears.

Understand your school's precautionary measures

Knowing what your child's school is doing to keep children safe can be reassuring. Plans and procedures are usually in school handbooks and posted in classrooms, but the school secretary or other administrator should be able to provide them, too.

Review the procedures and ask any questions you have of administrators. Do visitors need to sign in when visiting the school? Are they escorted through the building? Do visitors need to wear a visitor pass? Does the school have regular active-shooter drills, and what do those involve? Do school counselors address safety with students?

Share the safety measures with your child. Make suggestions for improvements, and/or form a parent and teacher's group to improve the procedures if you feel they could be improved – or to develop new procedures if needed.

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Make sure you know alternative routes to and from school, should a road be blocked in an emergency. If your child is old enough, make sure they know the routes to and from school, too.

Talk to your child about school shootings and violence

You may worry that talking about school shootings and violence will upset your child, but avoiding the topic may increase your child's worry and your own. Having an age-appropriate discussion with your child can ease your anxiety. Try not to unload all of your fears on your child, but be honest if you're upset. (You might say that that you're sad because some people were hurt, for example.)

Give your child the opportunity to talk about their feelings, and work to validate any concerns they might have. Ask your child if they have questions, and answer them as straightforwardly as you can.

Reassure your child that these events are rare. Emphasize that their school is safe and that the teachers and other staff there want to protect them. Point out the steps you and others at school have taken to keep them safe, and tell your child what to do if they're feeling unsafe at school. (Trusting their instincts, and finding a teacher to talk with, are two things you can discuss with them.) Make sure they know how to get in touch with you when they're at school (on their own or with a teacher's help).

Your child may need extra reassurance for a while. Allow for some extra time in the morning if they seem clingy. If your child isn't sleeping well or has lost their appetite, talk about what's bothering them. Encourage your child to talk with teachers and school counselors, too, who will likely be prepared to handle questions and concerns about the topic.

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Learn more about how to talk to your child about violent events in the news.

Focus on positive school experiences

Remind yourself of the positive experiences your child has at school, from participation in sports and/or the arts, to the friendships they've forged. Look at pictures or the video of your child's recent holiday performance, remember how excited they were to bring snacks on their birthday, recall the smile on their face when they shared their latest art project, and how they fell in love with their first teacher.

Think about the positive experiences that lie ahead for your child at school, too. Are they looking forward to joining band or the basketball team next year? Is kindergarten graduation coming up? Give yourself – and your child – some things to look forward to at school.

Talk to friends and family about your feelings

Just as your child may need to talk with you and other adults about what's going on, you may need to talk about your feelings, too. As a parent, you probably feel like you have to be strong and calm for your child or children. But you don't have to act like everything's okay and bottle up your own emotions.

Share how you're feeling with adults you can trust – a partner or spouse, a grandparent or friend. Commiserate, but do some problem-solving together, too. How did your friend reassure her children about school safety? What resources do they use for solid information about the topic?

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Don't hesitate to seek help from a counselor, too, if you need more help sorting through and coping with your anxiety.

Keep up with your own wellness practices

After a school shooting, you may feel despair, anger, and fear. And those feelings may keep you glued to the television or other news source – to the detriment of your mental health. It's important to be informed about what's happening, but too much detail can start to weigh too heavily on you. Try turning off the news if you're feeling overwhelmed, and shift your focus to something positive, like your own physical and mental health.

Try to stick with gentle, soothing habits that ease your mind – whether that's meditation, yoga, running or walking, gardening, or a half hour of reading each day. Eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising is important for your physical health. But these activities can do wonders for your mental health, too. A run or walk can help clear the terrible images from your head while increasing your endorphins, for example. And getting enough rest can help you better cope with your feelings the next day.

Remember that you're doing the best for your child

With many parents talking about homeschooling their children to keep them safe, it might be easy to feel that you're falling short – or even being negligent – by sending your child to school. This is not the case. We can't all homeschool our kids – whether or not we'd want to and whether or not that's a reasonable solution. We need schools for our children, and we need them to be safe.

Some things are not within our control, but that doesn't take away from the good job you're doing as a parent. Focus on the things you have control over, and address those to the best of your ability.

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Talking with and reassuring your child and making sure your child's school is as safe as possible are very tangible things you're doing to take care of your child. Remind yourself of the other ways you're taking good care of your child: Providing nourishing food, supporting them academically and socially, and showering them with love are all very important to their happiness and well-being, too.

Ways to help protect our schools

If you're wondering what else you can do to keep our children's schools safe, there are a few things you can do now. Taking action to help prevent future violence in schools can also be a positive way to channel your fear and sadness. Activism can accomplish change, and it sets a good example for your child.

Here are some ideas:

  • Become an active member of your school's parent/teacher group and initiate discussions about school safety issues. Educate yourself, other parents, and administrators. Work to raise funds, if needed, to improve school safety.
  • Create a neighborhood watch for before and after school.
  • Consider joining and/or contributing to a school safety group, such as the nonprofit Safe and Sound SchoolsOpens a new window, founded by parents, educators, and community members at Sandy Hook.
  • Work for legislative change in gun laws. Organizations like EverytownOpens a new window and Moms Demand Action are fighting for public safety changes and offer numerous ways for you to get involved and support bringing an end to gun violence.
  • Use your vote to back candidates who support school safety and gun control.
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APA. 2019. Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting. American Psychological Association. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

APA. 2023. Parents are worried about school shootings. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Child Mind Institute. Undated. Anxiety over school shootings. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Child Mind Institute. Undated. Going back to school after a tragedy. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Education Week. 2023. School Shootings This Year: How Many and Where. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Education Week. 2023. School Shootings Over Time: Incidents, Injuries, and Deaths. a new window [Accessed March 2023] 

Gallup. 2019. Parent's concern about school safety remains elevated. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

NAESP. 2022. Helping children cope with tragedy. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

NCES. 2019. Digest of Education Statistics. Table 105.50. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

NPU. 2021. Parents raise the alarm about violence in schools & say increased bullying and mental health concerns are major issues. National Parents Union. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Parents for Safer Schools. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Scholastic. Undated. 6 rules for school safety. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Karen Miles
Karen Miles is a writer and an expert on pregnancy and parenting who has contributed to BabyCenter for more than 20 years. She's passionate about bringing up-to-date, useful information to parents so they can make good decisions for their families. Her favorite gig of all is being "Mama Karen" to four grown children and "Nana" to nine grandkids.