Addressing Anxiety Around School Violence
By Kristal Clark
It was 2:00 in the morning when I was awakened by the familiar grasp on my arm. I opened my eyes and there she was, her tiny 6 year old body shaking and tears forming in her eyes. I knew why she was there. It had become a nightly occurrence. It was six weeks before school started in 2017 and she had begun having panic attacks each night.
“Mom, how do we KNOW it won’t happen? What If I’m at school and a bad man shoots us? How do I know when it’s practice or when it’s real? I ‘m not going to school.”
My daughter hated fire drills. She hated lock down drills. And she hated the fear that consumed her every day: what if there is a shooting at my school?
I didn’t have the answers. If I was honest with myself, I shared her fear. I thought about it every day as my girls walked out the door: what if this is the last time I ever see them?
Our combined anxiety around the issue compelled me to seek advice from a therapist, where I learned that this is a common fear for kids and adults. If you have experienced this fear, you may ask yourself: how do I talk to my child about the scary things in the world?
While I don’t have all the answers, I have learned some things along the way that have helped myself and my children feel safer during school:
Be aware of your own feelings: It is ok if you share your child’s fear, or if you have fears of your own. Before having a conversation with your child, make sure you know what your own feelings are so you can avoid projecting them on to your child
Don’t worry about saying the exact right thing: In reality, there is no answer that makes tragedies less tragic. Your ability to listen and support them through their fears around tragedies that have happened or that they fear may happen is one of the best ways to provide a sense of safety for your kids. It is ok if your child is upset.
Limit news consumption when events do occur: It is natural to want as much detail as possible when something tragic happens, but too much news around the subject can increase anxiety for you and your child.
Discuss School Safety Procedures: Know the safety procedures at your child’s school and talk to your kids about why they are in place. Create a safety plan with your child, identifying safe adults at school and how you can be contacted if an issue arises. Helping them understand what the security measures at school really do will help them feel safer and protected by the adults in their lives.
Reassure your child: Let them know that school violence is still very rare, which is why it gets so much attention when it does happen. Make sure they understand that the adults in their lives are doing everything they can to keep them safe.
Listen to your child: The most effective way to reduce your child’s anxiety is to listen to them. Let them tell you what their thoughts and concerns are. Ask if they are feeling safe at school and let them lead the conversation. Validate their feelings and respond to their questions with the facts available to you, avoiding speculation or too much information for your child to handle. Address their specific concerns without adding new information. Their concerns may be very different from yours. Make school safety an ongoing conversation, rather than a reaction to an incident.
It can be challenging to address these issues with our children. Remember that you know your child best and are their greatest source of safety. Here are some more resources for more information around talking to your kids:
How To Talk To Kids About School Shootings > News > Yale Medicine
Talking To Kids About School Safety | Mental Health America (mhanational.org)
For help assessing how much information is appropriate to share with your child, check out the chart in Pandemic, Ukraine, and More: Parenting in emotionally charged times (youhaveavillage.com).