Repeatedly, tragedy takes place in our schools. Schools are meant to be a safe learning environment. Ongoing destruction and violence are increasing in our country. How do we process this? How do we support and have these difficult conversations with our children?
It is important for parents to take time to process before having conversation with children. It’s okay to take time and reach out to supports such as friends, family, or mental health providers. This will help parents process their own emotions and enable them to model healthy behaviors for their children. Children may become worried or upset if parents display strong emotions in front of them. It may be helpful to process overwhelming emotions with a support system or mental health professional.
American Psychiatric Association recommends avoiding the topic with children until they reach a certain age. Children under the age of 8 will struggle to process this, but it is important that we are there for them. First, check in with your children. Ask children if they are aware of what happened. Younger children may not be aware and depending on the child and age it is up to the parent if they want to talk to them about it. It is recommended to only give young children simple information and limit media exposure. Media exposure can cause secondary trauma. This is true for all ages. Provide reassurance to your children. “You are safe”, “Your home and school is safe”.
Younger children will not be able to verbalize their feelings and will need assistance. You can help them identify their feelings by saying “I feel sad about the families in Texas, how do you feel”? If your child is unable to verbalize feelings that is okay and normal. Some children may benefit from using art or play to express their feelings. Children may also benefit from creating thank you notes to first responders and teachers at the school, giving them a sense of control and hope.
Observe your child’s behavior in the following weeks. Children can present anxiety or depression in different ways. Reach out for help if you start to notice your child isolating from family and friends, consistent meltdowns, anger outbursts, changes in sleep, or change in appetite.
Adolescents and teenagers will be more aware of recent events. More detailed conversations will be appropriate. It is okay to have conversations on what they can do to maintain their safety at school by following safety guidelines, talking to an adult or teacher about concerns, and reaching out for support if needed from school counselor, parent, or other school staff. Adolescents and teens may be interested in getting involved and how they can help. Keeping the conversation open and asking open ended questions will allow them to feel more comfortable and supported.
Resources: APA, National Association pf School Psychologist.