School safety is an issue on every parent’s mind these days. It can be difficult to know where our fears end and our children’s begin. As parents, it’s important to remember that most of us never went through safety training experiences like these. Our generation never went to school and had active shooter drills, lockdowns, practice hiding, evacuations. When most of us were kids, the worst thing we were probably trained to prepare for was an earthquake, a tornado or a fire drill.
The best thing we can do as parents to help our children with these sometimes-scary experiences is express interest and curiosity to find out what it is like for our kids. It would be wrong to assume that we know what a child is feeling. We need to give them a chance to say out loud to a caring adult the things they might be thinking or feeling by themselves. It is hard for parents to invite kids to share their most difficult feelings and then just listen and show respect for their experience without trying to rush through it and say what we hope will make a child feel better. But this comes up often in my work with kids, and they always seem relieved when they can talk freely, without interruption, to a calm adult who is patient and genuinely interested.
Here are some suggestions to bear in mind when speaking with your child about this or any other difficult subject:
Calm your own emotions first
Children of all ages look to their parents to get a sense of what to think and how to feel about new situations. If parents seem upset, then children will likely believe they should feel anxious, too. Conversely, a parent who can find a way to face challenges calmly and positively will help their children feel at peace and hopeful, too.
So, the first order of business is to take care of yourself in order to help your kids. This may mean limiting your time with social media or other information sources and creating a healthy balance of work, exercise and social time for yourself.
Begin by listening
Once you are ready to talk with your kids, it’s always good to start by first asking them about how they are doing. This is always the most effective way to begin any important conversation with children and teens.
- Check in if they are asking questions.
- Check in if they aren’t asking questions.
- Check in if they seem upset.
- Check in if they seem unconcerned.
When you check in with your kids to ask, “How are you doing with this school lockdown/active shooter drill thing?” You will encourage your children to share out loud what they have been hearing from both their teachers and from other kids, to sift through their questions and fears, and to figure out what they think and how they feel about it all. Conversation openers like these, in other words, are invaluable for helping kids to start talking about their experiences, which is the first step towards making sense of their experiences.
As adults, we know how important it is to get a sense of what’s going on, and we also know how frightening it can feel when a situation is out of our control, and we aren’t sure what may happen. Similarly, children also feel more confident when they have the sense that they understand what’s happening. And they feel much more anxious and afraid when they feel like they don’t know what’s going on or how they could or should respond.
Here are some questions you might ask when you encourage your children to share their thoughts and feelings with you:
- Are these drills and trainings and lockdowns scary or boring or fun or something else entirely? Are they a welcome break or an annoying interruption? Most kids have a lot of mixed feelings about it.
- How do the other kids respond? Do they see other kids looking unconcerned or nervous? What do the other kids say, joke about, worry about? What other kids are saying will influence your child every bit as much or more than what the parents and teachers say.
- What do you think about these school shootings that have happened in other places? What have you heard about it? What do you think about it?
Then ask your child what they find themselves thinking and feeling inside. The BIG questions are the toughest ones:
- Have you ever imagined what you would do if there was a shooter in the school building?
- Do you have some ideas about how you would want to respond if it happens?
- Have you talked about this with your friends?
- What do they say?
- Have you looked around the room to get a sense of how to hide or how to escape?
- How are you feeling right now as we’re talking about this?
- Does it help to think about these things?
And (a couple of my favorite questions):
- Is there anything more that you are wondering about? Is there anything else you are feeling confused about?
There’s lots of room for encouragement and appreciation here, because kids who have the courage to think about how to deal with hard things can also be the kind of kids who have what it takes to deal with hard things such as practicing for an active shooter situation.
Sometimes I think we adults are afraid of asking our kids questions like these. Maybe we fear that we won’t have the answers or that we might make our kids feel worse by encouraging them to express their feelings. Yet, children are comforted by just being able to talk about the things they don’t understand with someone they love and trust, like you. Even the scariest thoughts are easier to deal with when they are spoken out loud to a sympathetic listener.
Offer encouragement, not solutions
- It’s also helpful to remember that children don’t really expect, or need, their parents to have all the answers. When your child shares that they are feeling worried or upset or scared, that’s the time to just acknowledge how they are feeling. Simply saying, “It seems like you are feeling pretty upset about this,” or “I hear that you really hate it when they tell you they are going to have a lockdown drill,” shows your children that you are paying attention, that you understand their feelings and that you care about them. That in and of itself is very comforting and encouraging.
- If your children express that they are feeling sad or scared, you can simply reflect back on what they are saying. “I get it that you are angry/tired of/sad/don’t care about/sick of having to have these drills.” Most kids do not want to hear, “You don’t need to worry!” and they don’t want a lot of advice or to be smothered with lots of well-intentioned pity. Just echoing their feelings, “It is a very sad thing to think about, ‘What if someone in my school gets shot?‘” and empathizing, “I’m feeling bad and worried about that, too” will help comfort your child.
Keep on listening, without judgment or criticism
It can be difficult not to fact-check your children or correct them while they are talking. Being children, they will probably talk about thoughts and feelings that will sometimes seem remarkably ill-informed, self-centered, or possibly just silly and unrealistic. Yet, when adults ask their children what they think and then quickly correct or criticize, children and teens are likely to go quiet, get defensive or even blow up angrily, “You aren’t even listening to me!” So, hold off and wait until the end before offering your own opinions.
Children do not feel worse when you encourage them to talk and fully express the depths of their worries. They feel better because you are showing them that their feelings matter. Talking out loud about troubles and worries helps children sort through and figure out what they are feeling and what is bothering them. By helping your children sort out their thoughts and feelings, you will put them in a much better position to figure out how to deal with the emotional repercussions of what they are facing.
Children are most likely to really listen and pay attention to what we say when they have first experienced our genuine interest by paying attention to what they say. Listening and giving close attention to their thoughts and feelings strengthens the bond between the parent and child, creating even more understanding and connection.
Follow your child’s lead when sharing your own views and information
When you want to answer your children’s questions or when there are things that you need to tell them, your good sense will help you to be careful not to overwhelm them. More information is not always going to be more helpful. When it comes to figuring out how much or how little, to say, you’ll always be on solid ground when you let your children’s questions guide you. Children have pretty good instincts about what they are ready – or not ready – to know. Some children, for example, will be reassured by looking at the school emergency preparedness plans online and feel reassured to see that adults at school are thinking about and doing things to keep schools safe. Other children would find so much detailed information overwhelming and too hard to digest. Simply talking about the school community of strong, smart, caring adults who are on the job to keep children safe might be enough for them.
Children also have pretty good instincts about how much – or how little – they can talk about serious and scary subjects at any one time. Younger children, especially, prefer to take in information or deal with difficult feelings in very small doses. A few minutes of conversation with them now and then would probably be sufficient. Older children and young adolescents can explore emotional topics at length. Yet, they too will often want to talk about emotional issues for only so long before it gets to be too much. It’s not unusual for a child or a teen to be talking seriously about a sad subject one minute and then abruptly switch gears and say, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” This ability to sense when “that is enough for now” is a sign that a child is doing a good job of self-regulating their own emotions. Or, in other words, children are paying attention when their internal signals tell them “This much information is useful” or “Too much information is going to overwhelm my abilities to deal with this right now.”
Provide a sense of safety, resilience and love
One of our best and strongest instincts as parents is to want to comfort and reassure our children and teens. We can do that by inviting them to share their feelings about difficult experiences, by listening closely to their worries, and by making the effort to understand their fears. When we respond to our children’s fears, we can give them good information to correct the misinformation they hear. And we can reassure them by helping them put their fears into perspective.
And finally, whenever your children are dealing with difficult issues in their lives, give them a hug. Touch is an infant’s first and most important soothing contact with the people who love them and protect them. Warm hugs, holding hands, back scratches, hair ruffles, and foot massages are all good ways to give your children reassurance and support. In difficult situations, touch is very comforting, for your kids – and for you.