NewsColumbine: 25 Years Later


How to talk to kids about what happened at Columbine 25 years ago, according to a child therapist

Denver7 visits with Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, a Denver-based licensed clinical psychologist, about how to talk to kids about the events that unfolded at Columbine High School in 1999.
Posted: 2:59 PM, Apr 16, 2024
Updated: 2024-04-19 22:11:14-04

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — As we approach 25 years since the tragedy at Columbine, many parents in Colorado and beyond may find themselves faced with the question: How do I talk to my kids about what happened that day?

Denver7 anchor Shannon Ogden took that question Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, a therapist, author and founder of The Child and Family Therapy Center in Denver. She provided her advice, and said it should differ for kids 12 and older and for those younger than 12.

"One of the things to say is, 'hurt people hurt people,'" says Dr. Ziegler.

For the older children, Dr. Ziegler recommends waiting for them to bring it up. When they do, briefly tell them the facts in clear and simple language.

"There were two boys who went to Columbine High School one day, now 25 years ago," she explained, "that decided that they wanted to take all of their anger out on very random people. And they shot and killed people."

"And then you just stop," she said.

Older children will likely have already heard something about Columbine and may have questions. She said to be prepared to answer honestly but avoid graphic or unnecessary details. Make sure they know school shootings are rare, but they get a lot of attention when they happen.

And, above all, for kids of all ages, tell them they are safe.

"We're doing everything we can to keep you safe," she offered as a reassurance for kids. "Your school is doing everything to keep you safe. So, when you see cameras or you see a new fence up, those are all things that say we think that's what keeps us safe."

Dr. Ziegler said that talking to children under 12 takes a more delicate hand. She recommended using an occasion like a lock-down drill at their school, which many children now have as early as preschool.

"I understand you had a lock-down drill today. Why do you think you do those?," Ziegler suggested as a guideline for the conversation. "[A child may then say] 'Oh, they said that if there's a bad guy that were to come in' [and a parent can respond with] 'Yeah, that could happen.'"

"Every single person in the building knows what they're doing," she suggested adding. "That's why we practice. If something were to happen, they are there to be protective of you."

Ziegler said that a child's fear often comes from feeling like they have no control. So give them some. They can control their own actions. So, teach them about empathy and kindness and to look for ways to do kind, helpful things.

"Let's spread kindness. People are hurting. People feel excluded. Whatever it may be. Let's just do our little part to make people feel like someone cares. Someone sees them," suggests Ziegler.

How to talk to kids about what happened at Columbine 25 years ago, according to a child therapist

Finally, Dr. Ziegler said parents will likely have a tougher time thinking about this than their children. The events at Columbine will feel like a long time ago to a child.

Maybe this perspective will help: I remember visiting the Vietnam Memorial in the mid-1980s. The horrors of that war seemed distant to me then because it felt like it happened so long ago.

The Vietnam War had only ended about 10 years earlier. As we have this conversation, we are 25 years out from the events at Columbine.