I don’t want to write this blog. I already wrote this blog in, Between us Parents, following the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. And have referenced that article over and over as our country and our children continue to experience inconceivable violence every day. Storing these traumas in a not so accessible part of the brain, allows us to cope and continue the day-to-day. But when another school shooting happens, all the fear, anger, sadness, and grief flood back. I am upset.
My daughter is 7 years old. In October, she came home and detailed her day of practicing “stranger in the building” drills. Yesterday, a day after the attack on Robb Elementary School, my daughter came home and said “Mom, is a stranger going to come into my school?”
Well, they have practiced for it. I understand her concern. As a pediatric mental health counselor who has taught parents how to have these hard conversations, even I lost all my words in that moment. I was feeling and asking myself the same questions. In my head I thought “I don’t know.” Of course, my little girl needed some reassurance, so somehow I pulled myself together and had the conversation.
I want to share step-by-step, how and what I said, so that if you are faced with the same questions and feeling lost, you will have some guidance and support. This is hard. Let’s do this together.
Take a deep breath in from your nose. Hold. And let it out through your mouth. Repeat. This allows you to stay regulated and grounded. Your child is learning from you how to cope and sit with these hard feelings. Your breath and your connectivity to yourself will send the message of safety. The more connected to yourself you are, the more you will be able to connect to your child. Safety comes from feeling connected! So don’t skip this step!
2. GET CURIOUS:
Ask your child “Tell me what you know.” Many times, we assume our kids know everything we do. Or we don’t know how they interpret what they hear. My daughter’s response to “Tell me what you know,” was this: “A stranger went into a school and scared kids.” If I hadn’t taken the time to meet her where she was at, I could have unknowingly made her feel even more fearful and unsafe. Knowing that her understanding was that kids were feeling frightened of a stranger, gave me a starting point, structure, and even boundaries with where I needed to offer her support.
3. YOUR CHILD’S AGE:
Keep in mind your child’s developmental age. Your main goal is to convey a sense of security for your child. The kind and the amount of information that you share should be dependent on your child’s developmental and emotional level. Leave out details that may create increased fear or compromise your child’s sense of safety. My child is 7. She does not need to know all the tragic details of this event. Her sense of safety was compromised, so my focus was on repairing the rupture that had happened when she heard about a scary stranger getting into a school. If you want more, check out this super awesome book written for kids about school shootings: A Kids Book About School Shootings.
4. LISTEN & EMPATHIZE:
Even if your child’s fears seem irrational. This morning, my child had a huge temper tantrum over her hair. This is not typical of her. Her hair would not do what she wanted it to (and I could not figure out what she even wanted). I sensed she was feeling fearful and this was her communicating “I don’t have control.” We took some extra time this morning. I talked to her about her hair, validated her feelings, and gave her some choices to increase that sense of control.
Following a tragedy, children may fear that something bad could happen to them or loved ones. Separations can be especially difficult. Your child may plea for your closeness through attention-seeking and difficult behaviors. Try to resist the urge to yell or lecture. This is the opportunity to listen to your child’s feelings and words. Get curious about what is beneath the behavior. The more your child feels heard and supported, the more likely your child is to gain understanding about their world and strengthen their sense of safety and security.
5. REASSURANCE, SAFETY, & SECURITY:
My child asked “Will this happen to my school?” Unfortunately, I don’t know whether an act of violence may occur. I hope it does not, but I also know that what she was really asking was “Am I going to be ok?” Our children are seeking reassurance and seeking a felt sense of safety. So we can assure our children that these kinds of incidents are a rarity. Talk about the many times your child and family have been to school and nothing happened.
You may explain safety precautions your schools have in place so that children and families are safe. Verbalize your understanding of your child’s worries. Ask your child what will make them feel safe. Get creative. Perhaps you will leave notes in your child’s lunch box or promise to check on them before you go to bed. Offering these opportunities teaches positive coping skills, problem solving, reinforces a feeling of security with the parent, and offers the child a sense of control. What did I do with my daughter? She and I agreed to walk around the school together and to do our 5 senses activity to calm her body before she went inside.
6. “What About Kids Like Me?”:
Ready for the next hard question I had to answer? “Are the kids ok Mommy?” I took a deep breath and told her the truth in a simple way. “Most of the kids are ok, but no, some kids are not ok. It is really, really sad. I feel so sad and confused and sorry.”
Identifying and labeling our own feelings will help your child understand their own emotions and experience. Allow your child to feel sad, because it is sad. You do not want to dismiss your child’s emotions or to make them go away. Your goal is to help your child experience and express their feelings in a healthy way.
7. When to Seek Help:
If your child seems especially sad or upset for many days and the worries are interfering with school performance, social activity, and daily functioning, then you should seek professional help and support from a school counselor or mental health professional.