Child psychologist shares how to speak to kids about tragedy & trauma in wake of Nashville shooting

In the wake of the Nashville school shooting, some parents are having conversations with their children about tragedy and trauma. Child psychologist Dr. Chandra Ghosh Ippen is asking a question many parents may have: "Do I feel safe sending my kids to school today?"  

"I just want to say, we all deserve a place to fall apart when things like this happen," said Ghosh Ippen, associate director of the Child Trauma Research Program at University of California, San Francisco. She added that although people who directly experience traumatic events like the shooting at Nashville Covenant School, that trauma may extend to the larger community and manifest in many ways.  

Ghosh Ippen highlights how young children can often be the most impacted by events like this and has created resources such as a children’s book to help kids identify how they’re feeling. It's important for parents to affirm their kids' feelings, she said, by speaking to them about what is being done to keep them safe and about what are other adults are saying about the situation. 

Ghosh Ippen suggested some talking points parents can use in conversation with their children.

"This is what the grownups in your life are doing to keep you safe," Ghosh Ippen said. "This is what we’re doing as a school and a community and that we want you to know we’re here." 

Retired Santa Clara County Fire Captain Joe Viramontez is also helping these communities prepare for the worst. He and other retired firefighters and police officers created "ICS for Schools," or the Incident Command System for Schools. It’s heartbreaking to see images like the ones out of Nashville of kids walking single-file to safety, he said, adding that it adds to the urgency of the need for an emergency communication plan.

"We have to have systems in place," Viramontez said. "We have to do the front-end work so that if this happens, we know what we’re doing." 

Viramontez's team trains school and district staff around the Bay Area and the state on how to respond to emergencies like fires, earthquakes and a school-shooters. 

"[We] help them organize and mobilize, so they can take care of themselves and take care of the kids," Viramontez said. "Most importantly, get the kids back to their parents at the end of the day." 

More than 100,000 American children attended a school where a shooting took place in 2018 and 2019, according to a 2022 study by Stanford University

Dr. Ghosh Ippen reminds people that trauma is often managed not cured, and new stressors can cause painful reactions. 

"With asthma, you know that if you hit heavy pollen season, you get a return of symptoms, it’s cyclical," Ghosh Ippen said. "Trauma is the same way, if you are in the presence of reminders, danger reminds our body of dangers."