When scary things happen in the world — whether across the country or in our own community — it can be difficult for us as parents to help our children feel safe and secure. Our approach will be deeply personal — after all, we as parents know our children better than anyone else.
To support you in helping your child, we offer the following tips gathered from a variety of resources, including the National Association of School Psychologists. If you would like additional support in working with your child, please reach out to the school counselor or social worker at your child’s school.
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.
Here are some things you can tell your child:
- Schools are safe places. School staff works with parents and public safety providers (local police and fire departments, emergency responders, hospitals, etc.) to keep you safe.
- We all play a role in the school safety. Be observant and let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous or frightened.
- There is a difference between reporting, tattling or gossiping. You can provide important information that may prevent harm either directly or anonymously by telling a trusted adult what you know or hear.
Make time to talk
Let your child’s questions be your guide. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Take their fears seriously
Don’t ignore or laugh off your children’s concerns. If their behavior changes after seeing or hearing about a major news event, they may be trying to process the information. Encourage your child to talk about what they are thinking. Hearing their perspective will help you decide how much information you want to share. Then help them understand that their fears and concerns are normal by sharing how you felt when you heard about the event.
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.
Play is kids’ way to work through lots of things, including fears and worries. If your child re-enacts the news, pretending to be a firefighter or EMT, encourage it. Step in only if playtime gets aggressive toward other children.
Dr. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist, believes that in times of trouble, one of the best ways to reduce kids’ feelings of hopelessness is to find ways to comfort others and help the affected community. Borba fashioned four elements that parents can use to reassure children that their world is safe and caring: T.A.L.K.
- T – Tune in to your child’s emotions
- A – Assure safety and be available
- L – Listen patiently
- K – Kindle empathy and do something positive
Look for the positive
Look for the positive parts of unsettling news. Talk with your children about the people who come to help those in trouble instead of focusing on the negative aspects of the event. In the words of Fred Rogers, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”