May 25, 2022

Talking To Your Child About Tragic Events At School

 Hello Everyone,

I hope you are doing well and enjoying late Spring.  In response to yesterday's deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School in Texas, I wanted to provide a brief post about reassuring your child of their safety in school. I also want to address the topic of gun safety as well.  Please note that while this post is directed mainly to parents of children with developmental diagnoses, the ideas apply to all children in general.

Children, especially those with developmental diagnoses, often need reassurance of safety when confronted with threatening situations or the potential threat of such situations.  This can be difficult for them as it requires being able to abstractly think about what "could" happen as opposed to the moment right in front of them.  It's even more difficult for parents as we understand the randomness of such threatening events as school shootings and other acts of violence.  Such violent acts destroy safety, trust, and above all, innocence.  We cannot prevent these senseless acts from happening, however we can provide reassurance to our children that they are safe and that we will do our best to protect them.  Being consistent and reliable as parent protectors is our best way to concretely demonstrate that our children our safe and will continue to be so.  Here are some ideas:

Discuss the event: If your child is capable of understanding what happened be sure you discuss in a matter-of-fact way what happened.  Be sure to mention that what happened was tragic and discuss the emotions that may go along with such an event.  Use clear language and make sure your child understands the words you are using; don't assume they will understand on your own.  Limit access to media so that you can control the tenor of the information your child is receiving and so they do not get overwhelmed by the in-your-face nature of news media.

Communicate so your child will understand: If stories or pictures work best use those; use language that is concrete and specific.  You can also include a beginning statement such as "A very tragic (sad scary, whatever you think your child can handle) event happened.  

Validate your child's fears about school safety: If your child has fears about school safety talk them through and listen with empathy.  validate their feelings and thoughts even if you know they are not likely to happen.  Remember that children, regardless of diagnosis, will often process fear by attempting to master it by putting themselves in that situation via their imagination.  A child may also make up scenarios as another way to understand these scary events.  For example, your child might ask what would happen to them if someone shot at them or tried to hurt their teacher.  They might even say what they would do.  This can be a hallmark sign of trauma.

Validate your child's fantasies about how they would handle violent scenarios: Remember that all children try to resolve scary and unknown situations by fantasizing about how they would handle the situation.  They might tell you what they would do in the situation or how they would try to stop it from happening.  Remember here that the child is dealing with a significant, random unknown that can cause harm in reality so they are trying to prepare for that situation.

Discuss safety plans: This is hugely important to a child's sense of safety.  If your school has a safety plan, make sure it's being taught and reinforced regularly.  Get as much information yourself about what plans are in place to help your child deal with the sudden disruption and sensory overload that will happen should the plan occur in a drill or real life.  Also discuss your role as a parent in making sure that your child will be safely reunited with you in the case of a violent event.

Demonstrate your reliability: Your child needs concrete proof that you will be there for them in the case of a violent event.  You can demonstrate this by showing up on time for regular routine activities, sticking to schedules, and following through on your commitments to your child such as picking them up on time or giving a reward when you say you will.  These acts reinforce the idea that you will behave as you say you will.

Use supports: Get other family and friends involved to help your child process the feelings around the reality of these events.  Keep in contact with teachers and encourage them to understand the challenges faced by children with developmental diagnoses around understanding such events.  You may even consider possible therapy for your child. Expressive therapies such as play and art therapy are helpful for young children as well as those with limited vocabulary.

Observe your child for signs of distress: Changes in behavior and routine may indicate distress.  Be observant and check-in with your child to see how they are doing.  Being available to discuss and process such distress is another way to demonstrate reliability.

Discuss gun safety: Guns are an inevitable part of our society; many people own them for one reason or another.  If you own a gun make sure that it is locked away in a safe place where your child cannot access it.  If your child is capable of understanding you can have a straight forward discussion about the guns in your house and the safety plan for safe handling.  Also be clear about who uses the gun and who doesn't.  Reinforce that most people with guns are safe people and know how to care for guns safely.  You can reinforce this concept by discussing the fact that by and large the only people with guns in public are the police and that most people are not carrying them-they leave them at home.

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