by Rachelle Tannenbaum
It is all too easy to remember the shock that gripped the nation in the morning hours of this past April, as friends and family of Virginia Tech students and staff scrambled to locate their loved ones in order to ensure they were safe. Unfortunately, memories of other school shootings across the country are all too fresh in our minds. Questions from our children are inevitable. Will I be safe going to school tomorrow? What do I do if it happens at my school? Who will protect me? It is normal for children to be confused and concerned. Children are exposed to a great deal of violence in the media, but school shootings are even scarier because they call into question the sanctity of a place that should be a safe haven.
In this article, Matt Yeazel will help expore this difficult issue. Professor Yeazel is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Anne Arundel Community College. He is a licensed clinical social worker whose previous positions have included working with the Anne Arundel County Department of Health providing clinical services to children and adolescents. He also consults with The Parenting Center for bilingual parent education programs and works in private practice in the Annapolis area.
TALKING TO YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT SCHOOL VIOLENCE
by Matt Yeazel
How will my child react?
- You will undoubtedly be barraged with questions. Guidelines for dealing with those are discussed below.
- Children of different ages will express themselves differently. Children under age six are more likely to express themselves through artwork or play. As children enter elementary school they begin to express themselves more verbally but will still often rely heavily on some sort of play. Adolescents are usually able to process their reactions verbally.
- Be alert to your child’s anxiety level. The most obvious symptom would be a refusal to go to school, but other symptoms may include excessive worry, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, or loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities.
- Watch as well for physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches.
- Remember, symptoms do not always manifest immediately. There is sometimes a considerable delay.
- Consult a professional if you are worried. Many symptoms will go away on their own within a relatively short time. But if they significantly interfere with your child’s quality of life, ask your pediatrician or consult a mental health professional.
How can I be proactive?
The discussion about school violence (or violence of any type) should preferably begin before a tragedy occurs. How to open up a dialogue about school violence will depend on your child’s age.
- For younger children (middle school and younger) it may be easier to start with a discussion of bullying or teasing before easing into more difficult topics.
- Children under age six shouldn’t watch TV news. At that age they have a great deal of difficulty separating fact from fiction, and the news will be more scary than informative.
- Elementary school children should watch the news with their parents so that reactions, emotions, and thoughts can be processed immediately.
- Most adolescents can handle a more direct approach. Ask specific questions about their fears about school violence. Your child may put on an initial show of bravado. This is common, but don't let that deter you from the discussion. Find ways to address this issue in different ways, like how they think the school should handle the potential for violence or what their friends think about this issue.
CONTINUE TO PAGE 2