High profile acts of violence, particularly in schools, can confuse and frighten children who may feel in danger or worry that their friends or loved ones are at risk. They will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react.
Parents and caregivers can help children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears. Below are some tips.
1. Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that adults in their lives and schools are very safe. 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. Below are some guidelines:
- 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 home and at school. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.
- People who will keep you safe: local police and fire departments, emergency responders, hospitals, etc.
- Be observant and let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous or frightened.
- Stay away from guns and other weapons. Tell an adult if you know someone has a gun. Access to guns is one of the leading risk factors for deadly violence.
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. Maintain a normal routine. Senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand. Doing things that you enjoy, sticking to your normal routine and being with friends and family help make us feel better and keep us from worrying about the event. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities.
The information presented was gathered from official guidelines provided by the National Association of School Psychologists. Additional information is provided by NASP for parents and educators on school safety, violence prevention, children’s trauma reactions and crisis response at www.nasponline.org.
Alexa Matlack is a post-doctoral fellow at the Boys Town Behavioral Health Clinic. She began working at Boys Town in August 2018 to complete her pre-doctoral internship and recently received her PhD in School Psychology from the University of Washington in Seattle. Alexa provides therapeutic services for children and families of all ages and backgrounds through the outpatient clinic at Boys Town. Outside of work you can find her in a yoga studio, reading, or with her friends.