My 5-year-old daughter likes it when her kindergarten teacher closes the blinds and the children huddle under her desk or in the bathroom. She thinks of lock down drills as a game of sardines and that it's fun to try and fit all of the students under the teacher's desk.
After a recent mass shooting, she walked into the room while my husband and I were watching the news. The reporter mentioned a lock drown drill, and she picked up on the phrase immediately. We hurried to turn off the television.
After every national tragedy, parents are encouraged to shield young children from the news. But often, children will learn about the news anyway. I have struggled to know what to say or how to handle the reactions of my children.
Mental Health America offers some good tips for helping children of varying ages after tragedies. The overriding theme of the tips is to keep good, open communication with your child. Allow them to express their feelings, whether through talking, drawing, or playing.
Guide the Conversation
The American Psychological Association offers these suggestions:
Think about what you want to say. It’s OK to practice in your head, to a mirror or with another adult. Some advanced planning may make the discussion easier. You won’t have to think about it off the top of your head.
Find a quiet moment. Perhaps this is after dinner or while making the next day’s lunch. This is time and place where your children can be the center of your attention.
Find out what they know. For example, there was a shooting at a school or a bomb set off in another country. Ask them "What have you heard about this?" And then listen. Listen. Listen. And listen more.
Share your feelings with your child. It is OK to acknowledge your feelings with your children. They see you are human. They also get a chance to see that even though upset, you can pull yourself together and continue on. Parents hear it often: Be a role model. This applies to emotions, too.
Tell the truth. Lay out the facts at a level they can understand. You do not need to give graphic details.
For young children, you may need to have the conversation about what death means (no longer feel anything, not hungry, thirsty, scared, or hurting; we will never see them again, but can hold their memories in our hearts and heads).
Say, "I don’t know." Sometimes the answer to the question is "I don’t know." "Why did the bad people do this?" "I don’t know" fits.
Above all, reassure. At the end of the conversation, reassure your children that you will do everything you know how to do to keep them safe and to watch out for them. Reassure them that you will be available to answer any questions or talk about this topic again in the future. Reassure them that they are loved.
Helping Children Cope
Mental Health America also offers these tips:
- Encourage children to talk about their concerns and to express their feelings. Some children may be hesitant to initiate such conversation, so you may want to prompt them by asking if they feel safe at school.
- Talk honestly about your own feelings regarding school violence. It is important for children to recognize they are not dealing with their fears alone
- Validate the child’s feelings. Do not minimize a child’s concerns.
- Empower children to take action regarding school safety. Encourage them to report specific incidents (such as bullying, threats or talk of suicide) and to develop problem solving and conflict resolution skills.
- Discuss the safety procedures that are in place at your child’s school.
- Create safety plans with your child. Help identify which adults (a friendly secretary, trusted teacher or approachable administrator) your child can talk to if they feel threatened at school. And make sure that your child knows how to reach you (or another family member or friend) in case of crisis during the school day.
- Look for signs that your child is concerned about returning to school. Younger children may react to school violence by not wanting to attend school or participate in school-based activities. Teens and adolescents may minimize their concerns outwardly, but may become argumentative, withdrawn, or allow their school performance to decline.
- Keep the dialogue going and make school safety a common topic in family discussions rather than just a response to an immediate crisis. Open dialogue will encourage children to share their concerns.
- Seek help when necessary. If you are worried about a child’s reaction or have ongoing concerns about his/her behavior or emotions, contact a mental health professional at school or at your community mental health center.
At RACSB, we offer counseling tailored for children and adolescents. Call us at 540-373-3223 if you feel your child needs some extra help.
We also have emergency services available 24 hours a day for emotional crises. This includes specialized crisis services for children. Call emergency services at 540-373-6876.