How do I help guide my kids through the trauma of school shootings?
Earthquake drills. Fire drills. These types of emergency preparations have long been part of student life in Orange County schools. These days, unfortunately, many children have something else built into their school schedules: active shooter drills, to prepare them for the possibility of a mass school shooting.
The Robb Elementary School shooting in May was the 27th school shooting this year, according to Education Week. There have been over 200 mass shootings in the US this year alone. It is deeply distressing to our collective psyche, as well it should be.
We don’t want to normalize school shootings. At the same time, we have a responsibility to our children not to fall apart at the seams — and to help children work through the anxiety that these shootings provoke in them.
Parenting through these heartbreaking times is challenging. There is no “right” way to approach the stress and deep sadness that many students — and their parents — feel when the news turns grim.
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- Creating an Open Dialogue About School Violence
My advice boils down to actively listening and providing support.
- Talk to your kids, offer open-ended questions. Ask them what they know and how they feel. And then listen. The questions and concerns that they come up with might surprise you. Be prepared to have this conversation multiple times, especially with younger children.
- Don’t put it off. Avoiding these tough discussions robs you of those important first glimpses of how upset they actually are. At the same time, for kids and teens who aren’t ready to discuss the news, forcing them to talk isn’t helpful. For these kids, keep the door open, and let them know you’re ready to talk when they are.
- Use age-appropriate information and details. Younger children benefit from simple, concise explanations, while older kids will need more depth and details. Be prepared for children to focus on themselves at first — their safety, their school, their needs. This is normal. Once they feel heard and supported, they will be able to more fully think about others’ needs and experiences.
- Reassure your children that they should feel comfortable at school and in their communities. Remind them that a huge majority of schools are safe.
- Limit kids’ exposure to media and news reports, including social media for teens. Videos and images of carnage and violence can be potentially traumatizing for young children and teens alike. Watching teary-eyed reporters and trauma surgeons discuss these tragedies can be triggering for us all, so parents may need to disconnect as well.
- Keep routines in place. Kids feel more secure with predictability. Continue exercise and extracurricular activities as regularly scheduled.
- Convert feelings of grief or anger into action. This can be cathartic. Get involved in initiatives and activities related to violence prevention or caring for trauma victims and their families. This is work you can do with your kids. (Parents need catharsis, too.)
- Monitor your children for changes in routines, sleep, appetite or a possible increase in somatic or body complaints. This is especially true for kids with a history of trauma or anxiety, who may have more trouble coping or processing a tragedy.
- Keep your own anxiety in check. While it is human for parents to show their own emotions when discussing school shootings with teenagers, modulate your responses in front of your kids. Anxiety can be contagious, particularly for younger children who might be looking to you for social cues.
- Check in with teachers, school counselors and others. These events can be triggering, especially for children who have experienced trauma in the past. Parents should reach out to discuss a child’s wellbeing with pediatricians, therapists and psychiatrists if necessary. Do not put off seeking out mental health support, especially if they are showing signs of anxiety or depression for more than two weeks.
School shootings are not normal events, and there is no “right” way to parent through them. The best strategy is to listen to your children’s questions, accept their feelings and provide support.
Dr. Sina M. Safahieh is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Hoag.