Helping Children Feel Safe at School

Three school shootings occurred within one month in the fall of 2006, including an incident at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania that killed five children. CHILD interviewed Jerry Brodlie, Ph.D., chief of psychology at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut and a member of the magazine's advisory board, for his advice on reassuring children during frightening times.

Q: The recent school shootings have left children and parents across the country feeling horrified and scared. What can be done to help children feel safe about going to school -- and help parents feel comfortable sending them?

A: The thing that is so difficult about situations like this is that they underscore a lack of control. No one likes to be reminded of the possibility of an event like this -- and particularly in the Amish community, we feel that if it can happen there it can happen anywhere. They are such an innocent group, and violence like this comes as a total shock.

But what we need to do is bring back a sense of control to the extent possible. Parents and school personnel need to get together and have a discussion about plans that exist regarding the security in their school. Parents have an important role, but schools have to play a role too. It is the responsibility of the school to keep parents informed. Parents can call the school and find out the policy regarding security, and then they will be able to truthfully answer children and say, "Yes, that was terrible, but here is what we're doing so that can't happen here." Tell your children what measures are in place to keep them safe, such as the fact that there is someone at the front door of the school to make sure anyone who enters is known, and if someone suspicious tries to enter he will be stopped, the police will be called, and so on. The main thing is to emphasize that something is being done, no matter what it is that is being done.

Q: What should you say to children who ask why the shootings happened?

A: When it comes to why did this happen, children need to understand that this was a disturbed person and, in the case of the Amish community, these were unusual circumstances. In most schools this man would have been picked up early on, but in this case it was a one-room schoolhouse with no telephone and no security and no police nearby. But more important, this was a very strange person, and fortunately there are not many people around who are like that.

What you say in response to your child's questions will, of course, depend on the age of the child. Older children can handle more information than younger children, and they may need more details in order to satisfy them. But at all ages it is appropriate to inform children what is being done to protect them in their particular school. You can't say there's a zero possibility of something happening because that is not true, but you can say we're aware and we're doing things to make sure anyone suspicious is being taken care of.

Q: What suggestions do you have for parents and children in the communities where the shootings occurred?

A: In those communities the needs of the families are very different because this is not a what-if situation; this really happened to them. But those situations are being dealt with by counselors. Those children are being helped very directly.

Q: What advice would you have about exposing children to news about the shootings?

A: Parents should expose children to the news as little as possible. If I had my way, I would say just turn it off when children are around and watch the news on your own time.

Q: What are some warning signs to look for that indicate children are truly having trouble coping with this news?

A: Sleep disturbances are common, and an increase in acting out frequently goes along with anxiety. Even just verbalizing concerns can be a sign. In these cases, talk to your children and try to get them to indicate what they're nervous about.

Q: What other advice do you have for parents who are struggling with these events?

A: I would emphasize that you can't make children totally unaware of what's going on in the world or reduce their anxiety to zero, nor should that be the goal. You should aim to reduce it so that it does not interfere with their life. You can't create an innocent society that is totally safe because it isn't. Parents' responsibility is to develop a strong enough child that even though terrible things are not impossible, the child is able to go on and enjoy himself and all of his activities and not think about it.

Parents have to make a very concerted effort to keep their own anxiety in check also. As best you can, act with a calm demeanor and in a fashion that indicates you're not particularly worried, so your child shouldn't be either. That is easier said than done for some parents. If a 3-year-old is walking down the street holding Mom's hand and passing a dog that Mommy is afraid of, her nervousness will transfer to the child and the child is more likely to become afraid of dogs. You may have to do an Oscar-worthy performance to not show your anxiety, but it's important to make the effort.

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