In the wake of tragic events involving school shootings in our country, school safety has become a top concern for parents, children and school officials. The conversation around school safety has become an important topic that can at times seem scary, yet necessary to have. The sense of fear and worry about being safe at school is real —children want to feel safe at school. However, what happens when your child expresses daily worry and fear about going to school? What do you tell your child to give them a sense of comfort and security to help him or her have a normal school day?
When children hear about events involving a school shooting on the news or on social media, each child will react differently. Some children will not show concern or fear and will continue with normal daily activities. Some children may develop a sense of anxiety about going back to school. An anxious child may start to wonder, “Will this happen at my school?” or, “If there is a school shooting, what will happen to me?”
Children may show their anxiety in a variety of ways such as refusing to go to school; complaining of stomachaches or headaches so they can stay home; frequently visiting the school nurse; and being less focused in class because they are watchful of the door, window, or a particular student in the classroom.
If you notice that your child is expressing this type of anxiety, here are some ways to ease his or her fears and help your child feel safe again.
Listen to your child
It is important to listen to your child if he or she is worried about going to school. Ask your child about school, including their daily routine, classes, and other students or teachers that make him or her anxious. Younger children like to use drawings or paintings to express their feelings. Sit down and have art time with them to help them communicate what they are feeling. Acknowledge that the anxiety exists and feel free to ask questions about what you can do to help. This can include talking to teachers, counselors and administrators so both you and your child are aware of safety procedures at school.
Have open and honest conversations
When children hear about school shootings or threats of a shooting, they will have questions. If children come to you with questions about school safety, have an age appropriate conversation with them about their feelings.
Younger children may express more worry about themselves and will have broader questions due to lack of full understanding. With younger elementary school children, you should leave out details but answer any questions they may have. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychologists who work in the area of trauma and recovery suggest to be honest and let children know that bad things do happen. But even though you cannot always stop bad things from happening, children should know that school is still safe.
Older children may have more specific questions and worry about the possibility of an active shooter at school. Even if the conversation makes you nervous, talk to your child about a safety plan. This plan should include how you will communicate with each other if an active shooter event occurs. Even though the risk may be low, having a safety plan in place increases a sense of safety. Let children know that administrators, teachers, counselors, and school resource officers work hard each day to make sure that school is a safe place and the risk of harm to students is low.
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Cut down on news and social media
Always hearing about or seeing negative events increases anxiety for both children and adults. Research shows that some younger children believe the events are happening again each time they see a replay of the news footage. Children who frequently hear about negative events can experience more anxiety that leads to a snowball effect of worries. If possible, limit the amount of news and social media your child accesses. Sit down as a family and talk to your child about his or her day and things that happened during the day. Have family time away from the television and internet so children can come to you as a source of information instead of relying on coverage from the media.
Support the desire for change
For middle school and high school students, the sense of anxiety may leave them feeling helpless. They may even feel a sense of anger because they think the school administration is not doing enough to keep them safe. Encourage your child to write letters to the school principal or state government officials to express his or her concerns about school safety. Support your child with joining student government organizations so he or she can be a voice for change. When children are able to take a proactive stance on change, they will feel they have a voice that needs to be heard and are more likely to attend school daily to express their point of view.