Acts of violence that occur in schools can cause confusion and fear in children who may begin to worry about their own safety in addition to the safety of their friends and family. Kids will look to adults for answers to difficult questions like, “Why would someone do something like this?” and “How can I be sure that I am safe?”
While it may seem counterproductive, it is important for parents to answer these difficult questions honestly and to have an open discussion with their children. Kids are—and will continue to—talking about these issues, so it is critical for a parent to provide a space for them to express their feelings and worries. Focus on the impact that the event has on the child instead of the specific details of the event. Providing this space is the perfect opportunity for parents to validate the child’s feelings and to provide reassurance that they are safe. It is important to remember that timing is key when having these discussions, specifically avoiding at or right before bedtime as this could lead to increased anxiety impacting their sleep schedule.
Be sure that your explanations are developmentally appropriate!
Early elementary school
Keep the information simple and short, and balance with reassurances that their school and home are safe because of the adults there to protect them. Provide them with specific examples about their own school’s safety procedures, like locked exterior doors, emergency drills, and teachers monitoring children while outside.
Upper elementary and early middle school
Be prepared, as these age groups will ask more questions about how they are safe and what their school is doing to ensure their safety. Create a discussion around the efforts of their school and the surrounding community. You might have to make an effort on separating the reality from the make-believe they may create in their head.
Upper middle and high school
These age groups will have strong opinions about violence and what they believe are the causes. They will most likely want to share their suggestions on how to make schools safer. Be sure to create an accepting space where they are free to share their thoughts, feelings, and suggestions while reminding them of the role they can play in ensuring their school is safe (e.g., not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats made to the school or students by other students or community members). Encourage your teen to continue communicating their needs and issues of safety with you.
Here are some tips that you may find helpful when having these discussions with your own child:
- Provide a space where your child can talk about their concerns and express their feelings. You may have to initiate a conversation or prompt your child by asking if they feel safe at school.
- Don’t be afraid to express your own feelings regarding school violence. This helps your child realize that they are not the only ones with fears.
- Validate your child’s feelings. Never minimize your child’s concerns, but also let them know that serious school violence is not common and stress that schools are safe places.
- Limit television viewing of violent events. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause more anxiety or confusion, especially in younger children. You should also need to be mindful of the conversations about these events you have in front of your child, even your teenager!
- Create safety plans with your child. Help identify which adults your child can talk to at school if they feel threatened. Make sure your child knows how to reach you (or another family member or friend) in case of crisis during the school day.
- Keep the conversation ongoing. Make school safety a common topic in family discussions rather than just a response to an immediate crisis. An open dialogue will encourage your child to share their concerns.
If you become aware that your child is becoming more easily upset, is unable to fall or stay asleep, is having nightmares, or is experiencing high levels of anxiety, contact Crossroads Family Counseling Center, LLC for an evaluation.
Written by Paige Frasso an intern at Crossroads Family Counseling Center and also provides therapeutic services at Virginia Tech’s Center for Family Services located in Falls Church, VA. She is currently working on completing her Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy at Virginia Tech.