When something as tragic and frightening as a school shooting occurs, children are bound to have many concerns. We turned to educational psychologist and Parents advisor Michele Borba, EdD, for the five best things you can say to reassure them now.
"What have you heard?"
"Chances are your child got wind of the shooting in class or from friends, but kids can easily get the facts wrong or misinterpret them, which escalates their fears," says Borba. Grade-schoolers especially tend to exaggerate things -- "That school is right next to ours!" or "50,000 kids were shot" -- and you want to make sure your child's not worrying over something completely unfounded.
Consider reading the newspaper together as a jumping-off point for conversation and to give them an easy way to bring up tough questions. But if you see them catching the news on TV, don't let them tune in solo: According to a recent survey, tweens find tragic breaking news stressful and frightening without an adult there to help them interpret the information. And go with your gut: Emotional TV images may be too disturbing for sensitive children; in that case, you might be better off talking things through without visuals.
"What are your friends saying?"
Tweens and teens -- and boys especially -- might be reluctant to open up and let you know that they're afraid or worried for their own safety. But they might be more apt to come clean with "Kyle was really upset about what happened," says Borba. Asking this question is also another way to ensure your child and his friends have the story straight.
Even if your child doesn't outwardly express any fear or concern, watch for key changes in behavior over the next few days and weeks. The following signs may indicate that he's stressed and having trouble coping:
- Sudden clinginess (doesn't want to leave you or go to school)
- Eating significantly less or more than usual
- Difficulty concentrating, focusing or, over time, has a drop in grades
- Impulsivity, becomes easily frustrated or angered
- Sleep issues (nightmares, trouble falling or staying asleep)
- Physiological complaints (stomach pains, headaches, etc.)
"Your school is very safe."
Many children will wonder "Can this happen at my school?" How to respond: "Even if you're worried about this yourself, there's no reason to let your kids know that," says Borba. "Keep your voice very calm and explain that you're sure his teacher and principal have taken every measure to make sure school is the safest place possible." Worried or want to know more about school safety policies yourself?
"You can tell me anything."
Here's a shocking fact: Up to 75 percent of teenagers will tell someone of their intentions before committing homicide or suicide, says Borba. The problem is that too many kids are afraid to reveal what they overhear from their classmates. "Kids are so concerned about peer pressure and how others perceive them that they're reluctant to tell parents or teachers if they listen to another student making scary threats," she says.
Explain that when other children say things about harming themselves or others, the grown-up thing to do is tell someone else. "It's not snitching if someone's life is in danger," Borba says. "The best metal detector a school has is another child."
"How can we help these families?"
One of the best ways to help young children cope with tragic situations is to trigger their sense of purpose, says Borba.
"If you're religious, maybe you say a prayer for the injured people and their families, maybe you can light a candle -- whatever your traditions are." Or your kids might want to make cards to send to students at the school, for example.
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