How to help your kids feel safe when their world feels out of control
Like mass shootings in general, school shootings have gone from being a rare tragedy to a tragic reality. Already in 2018, there have been at least 17 instances of gun violence in U.S. schools, including the shooting Wednesday at a high school in Parkland, Florida. In one recent attack at a Kentucky middle school, two children were killed and 18 others were wounded when a fellow student opened gunfire.
How can you possibly explain these shootings to your kids and how do you talk about it?
As a parent, you may be struggling with how to talk with your children about a shooting rampage. It is important to remember that children look to their parents to make them feel safe. This is true no matter what age your children are, be they toddlers, adolescents or even young adults. For your own sake and your children’s, it’s critical that you make time to quell your own anxieties before diving into the issue at hand.
Consider the following tips for helping your children manage their distress.
Talk With Your Child
Talking to your children about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it does depend on their age, but all children need to be able to know you are there listening to them.
• Find times when they are most likely to talk: such as when riding in the car, before dinner or at bedtime.
• Start the conversation. Let them know you are interested in them and how they are coping with the information they are getting.
• Listen to their thoughts and point of view. Don’t interrupt — allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond.
• Express your own opinions and ideas without putting down theirs. Acknowledge that it is okay to disagree.
• Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Give them a hug.
Keep Home a Safe Place
Children, regardless of age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. During times of crisis, it is important to remember that your children may come home seeking the safe feeling they have being there. Help make it a place where your children find the solitude or comfort they need. Plan a night where everyone participates in a favorite family activity.
Watch for Signs of Stress, Fear or Anxiety
After a traumatic event, it is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your children’s behaviors may change because of their response to the event. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work or changes in appetite. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear in a few months. Encourage your children to put their feelings into words by talking about them or journaling. Some children may find it helpful to express their feelings through art.
Take “News Breaks”
Your children may want to keep informed by gathering information about the event from the Internet, television or newspapers. It is important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news because constant exposure may actually heighten their anxiety and fears. Also, scheduling some breaks for yourself is important; allow yourself time to engage in activities you enjoy.
How to Respond if Your Child Says They Don’t Feel Safe Going Back to School
If your child or teen says they do not feel safe going back to school, it is important not to invalidate their feelings, but to talk about them. “Say, ‘Tell me what it is that you’re worried about? What it is that you don’t feel safe about?’” “Validate why your child may not feel safe, if we just discount it with a throwaway, ‘You are going to be fine,’ we shut down the conversation.”
Be patient and supportive as children are trying to make sense of how something so horrific can happen at a setting where they go to be with friends, to learn.
Take Care of Yourself
Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Be a model for your children on how to manage traumatic events. Keep regular schedules for activities such as family meals and exercise to help restore a sense of security and normalcy.
These tips and strategies can help you guide your children through the current crisis. If you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed, you may want to consider talking to someone who could help. A licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist can assist you in developing an appropriate strategy for moving forward. It is important to get professional help if you feel like you are unable to function or perform basic activities of daily living.