Extreme school violence continues to be a major problem in the United States. As such, stories about school violence are frequent on news programs. No matter how much a parent may try, children may see and hear instances of school shootings.
A study out of my research lab four years ago (McDonald, Leahy, et al., 2010) found that 80 percent of kids exposed to trauma often ask their parents about that trauma. So parents need to be equipped to answer these questions in helpful ways.
Our research has uncovered three helpful tips to guide your discussions about school shootings and violence.
- Be warm and comforting. Your child is asking about these situations because he or she is worried and scared. Parental warmth has been found to be highly correlated with child outcomes. Seeing scenes of school violence can be a terrifying thing for any human, young or old, yet especially so for children. Younger children, who nearly always view themselves as the center of the universe, will question if such violence will happen at their school. Your child is asking to feel protected, guarded, and safe. Physical and emotional warmth are important in any discussion of this nature and are as important as the actual words used to answer questions.
- Be responsive. Being warm isn’t enough. The content of the discussion matters too. Our research has found that many parents feel that they are being helpful by telling their kids “not to worry about it.” In fact, this can cause your child to worry more. A more productive way to handle questions about school violence is to answer any questions in responsive ways, focusing on the perceived threat that children are experiencing (Will this happen to me? How do I handle this?). Answer the question directly, in age-appropriate language designed to help your child feel safe and secure.
- Focus on two factors: threat and blame. Kids are worried about two things: Are the people in my world going to be OK (threat to self and loved ones) and did I have something to do with any problem that has occurred (self-blame)? As such, any discussion about school violence should focus on these two factors and alleviate any concern children may be feeling. Kids need to know that the odds of such things happening to them are small, that they are loved and cared for, and that nothing bad they could do could cause such things to happen to them indirectly.
Conversations about school violence can be hard. No parent can assure his or her child that nothing bad will ever happen to them. However, odds are our children are not going to be victimized in a school shooting or extremely violent event. Parents know that, but children may not. Using these three tips to guide conversations about extreme school violence can help parents get this point across to their children.