Tips on talking to children about school violence

Tips On Talking To Children About School Violence
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Many parents are struggling with how to talk to their children about the Texas school shooting.

Parents are often afraid to bring up these topics because they don’t want to worry their kids. But, psychologists say avoiding the conversation can make the situation even scarier for children.

(‘Complete evil’: Texas gunman kills 19 children, 2 teachers)

“We want kids to learn about big traumatic things from a trusted adult. If they learn about it from other kids on the playground, homeroom or overhearing it on the radio, in a store, then they are going to hear potentially more sensational bits. They are not going to have accurate information,” says Dr. Jamie Howard, a senior clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute.

Dr. Howard says these conversations can start with children around school age.

“An opener is, ‘You know, I’m feeling really sad about a news story that I saw and I wonder if you have heard about it.’ You don’t want to jump in with a lengthy detailed explanation because it might be more than they need and more then they want.”

Dr. Howard says parents can remind kids that statistically, this violence is still very unlikely to happen at their school. Parents can also talk about what safety measures are in place.

“They practice stay put drills in their school where the doors are locked and they stay quiet. And I don’t even think my daughter knew what they were for. So, they weren’t so scary to her, but now she has a better understanding that they are to help keep her safe,” she says.

Dr. Howard also says it’s okay for parents to look sad or angry. However, she adds that parents should be mindful of their emotions. Big emotions from a parent can also scare children.

Parents should also keep a close eye on changes in their child’s emotions, behavior, appetite or sleep. Those could be signs a child is feeling anxious.

The National Association of School Psychologists says doing things that you enjoy, sticking to your routine, and being with friends and family can help make us feel better and keep us from worrying about the event.

Additional Tips for Parents and Teachers

Parents and school personnel can help children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears. You can find additional tips from the National Association of School Psychologists below, or click here for more.

  1. Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
  2. Make time to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient; children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.
  3. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.
    • Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
    • Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
    • Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.
  4. Review safety procedures. This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.
  5. Observe children’s emotional state. Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can also indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of mental health professional if you are at all concerned.
  6. Limit television viewing of these events. Limit television viewing and be aware if the television is on in common areas. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to vengeful, hateful, and angry comments that might be misunderstood.
  7. Maintain a normal routine. Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.