My child anxious going to school after the Florida school shooting… What do I say?
Since the Valentines Day shooting in Florida, your sons and daughters have also likely heard about local incidents or threats of violence such as the one in Centralia or Republic, Missouri. In fact, schools around the country are facing threats of school violence and responding to anxious parents and students. Students may even have noticed an increased police presence around their school. Hearing about this violence and thinking of the lives loss is confusing to us even as adults, so it’s no wonder that some children feel overwhelmed and scared. It’s important that parents are part of the conversation. Your children and teenagers will hear about mass shootings, students bringing guns to school and the debate over how we as a country ensure the safety of young people in schools. By starting a conversation, you can make sure your child’s information is accurate and help relieve some of their anxiety. Attending school isn’t optional, so parents, teachers, schools, and yes, even lawmakers need to do their part to address student anxiety as it comes up.
1) Cope with your own anxiety first. Know that your child is going to be able to pick up on your emotions. If you are feeling angry, confused or anxious yourself do a little self care for yourself before speaking to your child.
2) Start by asking what they’ve heard and if they have questions. This gives you a great place to jump off from in the conversation. Maybe your child understands more than you think or perhaps you will learn that they misunderstood something they heard on the news or from a friend. It’s important to first correct any misinformation they have or directly answer any specific questions that your child has been concerned about.
3) Encourage your child to identify and express their feelings. Let your child know that emotions, even experiencing many different feelings at the same time, are normal. Directly ask how your child feels. Encourage them to talk about their feelings or perhaps journal. Feelings about school violence are likely to be strong and if kept inside can fester and cause even more anxiety. The first step to facing anxiety is to lean in by giving feelings a name and acknowledging their existence.
4) Acknowledge your child’s feelings. As parents, we may automatically dismiss a child’s feelings in our attempts to help them feel better. “It’s not that bad.” “What do you mean you’re scared?” “Your school has always been safe.” “That’s a really long way from here.” “Stop being silly, you know you’ll be fine.” These are all well intentioned statements that might flow naturally from your mouth. However, it tells your child that there is something wrong with their feelings and they are less likely to open up and talk about how they feel. If they start keeping these “wrong” feelings inside, the emotion will have a tighter grip and you will have an increasingly difficult time getting your child to talk to you over work through their anxiety.
5) Reassure children while still being honest. You can’t promise your child that they will never be hurt, but you can talk about safety features that are in place. You can say that school shootings are rare, that their teachers and school administration do everything they can to keep them safe and (assuming it’s true) that you trust the school. Consider calling your child’s school guidance office and asking them for information about their school’s safety plans. Sometimes sharing that specific information can be reassuring for students.
6) Keep in mind your child’s age and development level. One resource I found that offers some tips based on age can be found here.
7) Emphasize that violence is never a solution. It’s ok to emphasize that the shooter was sick or any religious beliefs you have about his inherent goodness, it’s also important to be clear that the violence did not solve any problems. You can talk to your children about the importance of talking to an adult if they notice that their peers have “big problems” such as depression, extreme anger or other feelings they aren’t coping with. Tell your children that if a peer ever mentions hurting themselves or another person it’s important to report that threat to a trusted adult, because acting on those thoughts wouldn’t solve the peer’s problems but an adult can help the peer get the help they need to feel better.
8) If your child continues to express a lot of anxiety or refuses to go to school, you may also ask what would make them feel safer and ask if there is anything else going on at school that is upsetting your child. Remind them that it’s ok to talk to you, their teacher or the school counselor about their concerns.
If your child or teen’s anxiety continues after awhile and is impacting their ability to succeed in school or another area of their life, or if you need to process your complex emotions related to parenting or the onslaught of violence in the news, consider contacting a therapist to talk about how counseling may be able to help. If you’re looking for a therapist in the Columbia, MO area, please reach out to Aspire Counseling by calling us at 573-328-2288 or using our contact page. Every child is different and may need a different approach. Just by reading this page you are showing that you care and that is the most important step in helping your child grow up feeling safe and secure.