Helping Children Cope in the Age of School Shootings

 Susan Bartell
  2nd-Mar-2018

A terrifying and tragic school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, is once again making headlines, as coverage of the response to the shooting that left 17 dead continues. With each additional shooting, parents everywhere experience deepening worry, and kids face an increasing fear that it could happen in any school … in their school.

Of course, it is not possible to guarantee that there will never be another school shooting. However, despite intensive media coverage making it seem like the opposite, school shootings are still exceedingly rare. It is, therefore, important to approach life in the age of school shootings with some practical preparation, a little understandable anxiety, and mostly, emotional balance.

There are several steps parents can take to help themselves and their children to cope and learn how to balance stressful feelings with living in a sometimes tough world. But first, parents need to reflect upon their own complex emotions as well as the verbal and nonverbal messages being communicated to kids.

It is perfectly normal to be worried, and even afraid, to send your child to school in the weeks and months following a school shooting elsewhere. However, if you find that your fears are overwhelming, or interfering with your ability to allow your children to function normally, it is important to talk about these feelings with other adults – or even with a mental health professional. At the same time, this is not a topic to discuss with your school-age child or teenager. Kids need to see their parents as reasonably concerned, but not fearful. Therefore, when you send your child off to school each day, it should be with your usual warmth and caring, but not with extra clinginess or expressions of concern.

After a school shooting, adults typically need time to talk passionately to one another about their fears and concerns. These conversations help us to manage our stress and feel less alone in our worry. However, parents must be vigilant about not having these conversations within earshot of kids. It might seem like we are just talking about feelings, but for kids – who need to walk into a school each day – these conversations will fuel anxiety or create fear that didn’t previously exist. Not all conversations are appropriate for the ears of children, and talk of adult concerns about school shootings fall into this category.

While it is a good idea to limit a child’s knowledge of adult conversation, it is imperative to allow your child to talk about their own feelings openly, without judgment and on their own timetable. A child may not be ready to talk about a school shooting immediately after it occurs, but might open up later. Some kids may feel nervous every day in school, and most are likely to feel anxious every time there is an "active shooter" drill or even when the smoke alarm goes off at school.

Kids should always feel that their feelings are valid and important. Even when their expression of bad feelings gives you the urge to convince them that everything is fine and there is nothing to worry about, resist the urge to say this. When adults try to make children feel better rather than listening and validating their feelings, instead of achieving the desired result, it only makes kids less likely to share their feelings with adults. Furthermore, when parents resort to a "don’t worry, everything is fine, this won’t happen here" message, kids are likely to see their parents as inauthentic at best and as liars at worst. Instead, focus on how unlikely a school shooting is and all that your child’s school does to protect students – including drills. Try your best to be comforting and authentic to ensure your message resonates with your child.

Life after a school shooting inevitably includes extensive, ongoing media coverage that continues long after the actual shooting, in the form of psychological analyses, political conversations about gun control and discussions by law enforcement experts. Some parents feel compelled to watch, read and listen to as much reporting as possible as a way to feel a perceived sense of control in a situation that, realistically, is actually out of our control. But while consuming large doses of the news may feel comforting to you, it is terribly detrimental to children, elevating anxiety and fear, and making it much harder for them to feel any level of comfort attending school. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to limit your media consumption to times when your child or young teen isn't within earshot.

Finally, for some people – including parents and children – actually taking action cultivates a sense of control. Parents and children can work together to raise money to help fund efforts to reduce gun violence or for causes supporting better mental health for all people. Kids can write supportive, age-appropriate letters to be mailed to the students and teachers at a school where a shooting took place. Not only does this show those affected that others care about them, but it helps the letter writer to learn how to express sympathy for others. Parents of older children, teens and college students can, with their child, attend rallies against gun violence or to support political reform that could reduce it. Taking steps like these not only feels empowering, it might mean that you and your child can actually be a part of making a small change in the world.

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Domain: Afterhours
Category: Auto
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