Talking to kids about school violence
School shootings, particularly one on the horrific scale of the December 14, 2012 incident in Newtown, Connecticut, provokes anxiety among all of us—parents, teachers, and students--and prompts discussion about school and home security. This is a natural and appropriate response. We all have to work together to consider school security while not creating a school environment that is oppressive and which creates even more anxiety among our children.
How Safe Are Our Schools?
School violence and the incidents we have seen in recent years are horrifying and tragic. However, we must try to remember these events appear in the news because they are unbearably tragic, but also because they are uncommon. We have to be mindful of the number of schools that operate every day in this country without major incidents of violence. In fact, it is much safer for a child to be in school than in a car. Nationwide, children are safer in school that at home. In our community, crime rates are lower, reducing the chances of school violence to even lower levels. So the overwhelming majority of students will never experience serious violence at school.
Why Does It Happen?
No one can provide an explanation for what makes people turn to the mass-shooting incidents we have seen in the last several years. The role of bullying and social ostracizing has very much been in the forefront of these discussions. However, it remains unclear to what extent that is truly a problem that leads to these terrible outbursts. Of course, most of the incidents we have seen have been adult offenders. Incidents in which adults, typically unhappy and disturbed workers, come back into a workplace and engage in violent acts are much more common than cases of adolescents who engage in shooting episodes at schools. In both kinds of cases, the truth is that mental health experts and school personnel cannot reliably identify potential perpetrators from any kind of profile. Sometimes people who are on the verge of violence display warning signs, which can include:
·playing with weapons of any kind, obsessing over weapons, collecting weapons
·talking or writing about acts of violence he or she would like to commit
·bullying or threatening other people
The difficult truth, however, is that the presence of one of these indicators, even all of these indicators, does not necessarily mean a person would ever engage in a terrible act of violence. It is also true that people who do not have these characteristics may end up being violent.
Reaching Out to Your Kids
After an incident of school violence, it's important for kids to feel they can share their feelings, and to know that their fears and anxieties are understandable. Do not be surprised if your child doesn’t express or display any anxiety. Sometimes, we adults do their worrying for them.
Rather than wait for your child to approach you, consider starting a conversation, especially if your child appears to be nervous or subdued. Consider asking what your child knows about these incidents and how they make him or her feel.
Share your own feelings too — during a tragedy, kids may look to adults for their reactions. It helps kids to know that they are not alone in their anxieties. Knowing that their parents have similar feelings will help kids legitimize their own. That said, our children look to us for calm and reassurance. To the extent you can, share your sadness rather than your fears. If we are feeling panicky, we need to not let our child see that or know that. Kids need parents to help them feel safe. It may help to discuss in concrete terms what you have done and what the school is doing to help protect its students.
It is certainly appropriate to try to help kids understand how, even with the recent incidents, the likelihood of violence episodes happening in their own school is very, very low. But, don’t be surprised if that reassurance doesn’t calm them much. People who are anxious don’t always respond to discussions of probabilities. You may know an adult, for example, who is afraid of flying. He or she knows that the chances of being in a plane crash are far, far lower than the chances of being in an auto accident. But that knowledge doesn’t always calm adults or children.
Talking About the News
The saturation of many of our lives by news coverage and the accessibility even young children now have to information make it impossible to shield our children from these tragedies. To respond to fears about incidents reported in the news, parents should consider giving what some call "calm, unequivocal, but limited information." This means delivering the truth, but in a way that fits the emotional and developmental level of your child. The key is to tell the truth, but not go into more detail than your child can handle. Parents should give kids the space to share their fears. Encourage them to talk openly about what scares them.
After a terrible tragedy, children will often need more reassurance, more calming physical contact. Sleep problems are not rare at times like this. Parents may want to temporarily take measures to help their children sleep, such as staying with them until they sleep. We may not be able to tell our children that no harm will ever come to them. We can assure them of our love for them and our commitment to keep them safe.