Introduction: Parents might wonder how to help their child or adolescent understand when violent acts take place in a school. Whether or not your child is expressing concern, you can use violent events in schools as an opportunity for an emotional check-in with your child or adolescent and provide them with a needed sense of security.
The developmental response to violence: When children and youth hear about a violent episode that happens within a familiar space they might worry or fear for their own safety, more than they show concern for the events that happened. A parent's message can go a long way in helping to reassure children they are safe. All children and youth need some one-on-one time with a trusted adult to talk about their feelings about violence, but they might not always have the words to ask for this time. If you find your child just hanging out near you, this might be their way of showing they want to talk. Discussions with children about this very serious situation should be at the child or adolescent's developmental level.
- A young child might only pick up on the anxiety and worry of others. They will need to have a consistent routine to help them to feel safe. Their feelings might be communicated through drawings, artwork or through their play.
- Children in elementary school need to know the adults near them are concerned and that they are safe from harm. Your discussions should be related to the facts, and be simple and brief. You should give them reminders of how their environments are safe (e.g. doors are locked, adults are monitoring them).
- Children in the middle school years are likely to talk more about their feelings than other age groups. They might have some difficulty with sorting out what is real from what is fantasy. A discussion about what is and isn't known, as well as their mixed feelings, is very important at this age.
- High school-aged youth might show strong feelings about violence in society, about the victims or the perpetrator. Fears and feelings need to be put into perspective for these youth, with the confident guidance from parents. Teens need to have their voices heard and know they have a legitimate role in ensuring their own safety within their home, school and community environments.
What to say and what to do: Schools are safe places and the adults who work at schools are greatly concerned about safety for children and teens.
- Reporting safety concerns is not the same as tattling or gossiping. Reports of what you know or have heard should be shared with a trusted adult.
- There is a difference between something bad possibly happening and probably happening.
- Sometimes people do bad things. It is hard for everyone to understand why this happens.
- Stay away from guns or weapons. Report to an adult if you know if someone has a gun or weapon, or is talking about using one.
- When anyone has a hard time controlling their strong emotions, violence is never a good solution.
Reviewing basic safety precautions: In addition to discussing feelings and giving reassurance about safety, parents can review the basic safety procedures that exist for their home and remind their children of procedures at school. Television views and media exposure of the violent event should be minimized. As well, be mindful of your conversations about the event in front of children or teens so messages and feelings are not misconstrued as fact or judgment.
Maintain a routine: Finally, parents can help to maintain a consistent routine for their children or teens, mindful of their feelings. If you feel that your child or teen is at risk for very intense reactions, seek professional assistance or referral for mental health services.