Q. What can parents tell their children if they are afraid to go to school after a school shooting?
A. Parents should give their children an opportunity to voice their fears and concerns. Parents can open a two-way conversation by saying, “When we hear about something as sad and scary as a school shooting, it makes mommies, daddies and children worry about our children being safe at school.”
If your child expresses a special concern about safety or violence at their school, talk about that concern with the child and offer to join the child to discuss it with the appropriate school personnel.
Parents should keep in mind that this shooting can remind children of a previous experience with danger. If so, talking with your child presents an opportunity for you to discuss these prior experiences and differentiate them from this recent shooting.
Parents can provide additional support to their children for a limited time, for example, accompany them to school or home, spend a little extra time with them at bedtime or agree to other practical suggestions the child may have. The key is to make sure your child understands this is temporary help, offered for a short time to assist them to return to their normal level of functioning.
Parents may want to reassure their children that these events could not happen at their school. However, it’s important to give your child realistic assurances — that while these events can and do happen, they are rare.
Q. What can parents do to protect their children?
A. If there is violence occurring in your home between adults or between adults and children, take immediate steps to seek help. Violence at home continues to be the major source of exposure for children to violence and violent injury.
All parents experience the constant tension between allowing your children to be independent and setting limitations for their own protection. What is most important is for you to continually educate your children and openly discuss the safety strategies that accompany increased independence. At the same time, you can renegotiate this balance with your children on a temporary basis because of immediate safety issues within their own communities and schools.
If you must restrict your child from activities because of safety concerns, explain that the restrictions are temporary and that you are looking forward to the time when the child can enjoy more independence. It is important for you to monitor these issues with your child, be aware of their friends and communicate with their friends’ parents and other parents who might have important information about your child’s friends and activities.
Q. Is there any way to recognize that a child might be violent?
A. There are many different facets to violent behavior among children and adolescents. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says the presence of one or more of the following increases the risk of violent or dangerous behavior:
- past violent or aggressive behavior (including uncontrollable angry outbursts)
- access to guns or other weapons
- bringing a weapon to school
- past suicide attempts or threats
- family history of violent behavior or suicide attempts
- blaming others and/or unwilling to accept responsibility for one’s own actions
- recent experience of humiliation, shame, loss or rejection
- bullying or intimidating peers or younger children
- a pattern of threats
- being a victim of abuse or neglect (physical, sexual or emotional)
- witnessing abuse or violence in the home
- themes of death or depression evident in conversation, written expressions, reading selections or artwork
- preoccupation with themes and acts of violence in TV shows, movies, music, magazines, comics, books, video games and Internet sites
- mental illness, such as depression, mania, psychosis or bipolar disorder
- use of alcohol or illicit drugs
- disciplinary problems at school or in the community (delinquent behavior)
- past destruction of property or vandalism
- cruelty to animals
- fire-setting behavior
- poor peer relationships and/or social isolation
- involvement with cults or gangs
- little or no supervision or support from parents or other caring adult
What is important is to discuss these issues with your child and to encourage your child to communicate any concerns they have about the behavior of others. Be prepared to speak to other parents when your child observes something that concerns them about a peer’s behavior. Make sure that your child’s school addresses any concerns that you bring to their attention.
If there is a concern about a particular child, it is important that the school has an appropriate procedure to adequately evaluate the child, establish an appropriate contract between the child, family and school, make the appropriate referrals and periodically monitor the progress of the child. Parents should encourage their schools to adopt this comprehensive, team approach to ensure one person does not miss the warning signs that another person might see.
Q. What can schools do to prevent violent incidents?
A. There are many efforts across the United States and within communities to make schools safe places to learn without violence and threats. After the recent school shootings, the U.S. Department of Education issued school safety guidelines to every school in the country.
Parents can ask school personnel if they have reviewed and implemented any of the Department of Education recommendations. In addition, parents and schools can refer to the recommendations of the National School Safety Center and the material provided by the National Education Association on their Web site. In coordination with parents, teachers, community agencies, community law enforcement and mental health professionals, the school can develop a plan for violence prevention and intervention.
Q. What can parents do to ease their own anxiety about sending their children to school each day?
A. All parents want to provide their children with a protective shield against harm or illness. When we send our children to school, we invest the school with the same responsibility. School shootings challenge our belief that parents or schools can guarantee total protection and make us keenly aware of our children’s vulnerability to harm or injury.
These concerns are appropriate if they prompt parents to constructively review issues of safety within our family, neighborhood and school community. Taking constructive actions is an important way to alleviate anxieties that result from real-life events. If an act of violence exposes parents to a realistic concern, they must take practical steps to address this concern.
A parent might be experiencing severe anxiety if the shooting brings back previous memories of danger or loss. It can be helpful for parents to talk over these issues with other parents, school personnel and community or religious leaders.
Child violence experts Alan Steinberg, PhD, Robert Pynoos, MD, and Ned Rodriguez, PhD contributed to this article.