Talking to children about school shootings: what can parents do to help?
by Susan Schlag, MS, LMFT
In the wake of yet another school shooting, across the nation, families, schools and
individuals are searching for answers. In our local community, schools are conducting lockdown drills to prepare for the unthinkable. This has impacted us all and has created the need for parents to have discussions with their children that can be difficult, confusing, and anxiety provoking.
As a mental health professional, I consider that impact to the students, family members and school personnel in Parkland, FL., as well as the far-reaching impact all across the country and into our own community. As a parent, I think of the impact on my own children and how our friends and their families are affected.
For parents like myself, who want to have a meaningful disucssion with their children, here is some information on the impact of trauma on children, how to talk to your kids about school violence and ensure your children have the support they need to cope and heal.
The impact of trauma on children
When someone (child or adult) is exposed to trauma, wheather they are a direct victim or hear about or see images of the trauma secondhand, it can have a profound and lasting impact. Exposure to trauma can affect people in different ways. Some common responses to exposure to trauma include: anxiety, nightmares, sleeplessness, not wanting to talk about or think about trauma, thoughts of the trauma popping up unexpectedly, feeling irritable/angry, increased fearfulness, increased concern for general safety for self or others and loss of interest in activivities that were previously enjoyable.
How to help our children cope
1. Open communication - Talking about what happened in a safe space wiht trusted adults (primarily parents, but also teachers, close friends and family members) can be helpful.
2. Honoring feelings - Allow children the space to openly express their feelings and validate those feelings. (i.e. "It must feel scary when you think about what happened," "It is confusing and hard to understand why this would happen.")
3. Provide reassurance - Acknowledging that bad things happen and also reassuring children that parents, schools, local police, etc. are working to make sure they are safe. Ask schools about current safety plans and create family safety plans. Having a plan for what to do in case of an emergency can increase sense of safety and confidence.
4. Age specific discussion - Conversations shoul dbe customized to your child's age and developmental level. Young school age children (ages 5-10) may be able to better communicate through art/drawings or play as well as talking. Adolescents (age 11+) generally have better developed verbal communication skills and will be more likely to be able to talk about their feelings.
5. News coverage - It can be confusing to young children to watch coverage of traumatic events on TV. Keep this in mind when deciding whether to allow your children to view news coverage. If you do decide to allow your children to watch, watch with them and discuss during and after.
6. Be aware of your own reactions - As parents, we model for our children how to respond in situations. If parents are able to remain calm and openly discuss feelings, children will learn how to do this also. If parents are feeling anxious and scared, it is important to be able to recognize this as well and take steps to cope with these feelings yourself. Practic epositive coping skills (relaxation, mindfulness, maintainnig a routine, healthy eating and exercise habits). Including your children in these practices can be helpful for the whole family.
Seeking professional help
If you notice significant changes in your child's behavior following exposure to trauma, do not hesitate to seek professional help. Significant changes can include: a change in behavior at school or a drop in grades, wanting to be alone more than usual, prolonged anxiety and fearfulness (continues a month or more beyond exposure to trauma), depression, avoidance of trauma reminders (doesn't want to talk about, think about or go to places that remind them of trauma), refusal to go to school due to fears, changes in eating and sleeping patterns and new physical complaints (headaches, stomachaches). A mental health professional (therapist, psychologist, school counselor) are excellent resources. Whenseeking professional help, look for a mental health professional tha tis experienced workign with children and trauma. A mental health professional will be able to help and your child process the trauma experience and learn new coping skills to address trauma reactions as well as build resilience for the future.
Originally published in SanPedroToday April 2018