Common Questions Kids Ask About School Shootings and How to Answer

In the wake of the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida, attention once again turns to what can be done to ensure the safety of children in school. Given kids are exposed to the news and overhear the concerns of their parents as they speak with other adults, it’s expected for children to feel incredibly uneasy.

Children above all want to feel safe.

When the adults in charge of protecting them are fearful and insecure, kids begin to ask questions and now more than ever, kids are demanding answers. Below are some common questions kids are asking when it comes to school shootings and their own safety. Here are my insights on this issue as well as ways to best have this important discussion with your kids.

Kids want to understand…

1) Why do people shoot children at school? Are we being targeted?

It’s important for parents to explain that often these shooters are angry and don’t care about who they’re shooting. Like most mass shooters, they’re depressed, possibly suicidal, and angry. This is why it is very important to remind kids to pay attention to kids who are bullying or are being bullied and anonymously report it to a teacher, counselor, principal or other school official. Peers, who seem normal and happy to the potential shooter, become an easy target of hate and anger, because they’re their only point of reference.

2) Am I safe at my school?

It’s understandable for kids to feel as if the adults don’t have control over their safety. This realization naturally makes kids anxious and paranoid about attending school. An honest answer is to explain that the parents, teachers and police are all working together to keep everyone at the school safe. Then follow through on your words with action. Attend meetings at the school and tell your kids you will represent their voice and get the answers they need.

The best thing parents can do is have their own plan of action in place with their kids. Make sure kids know exactly what to do if a dangerous situation arises in school. Make sure they know whom to call in case of emergency and if they find themselves separated from others that they quickly seek safe shelter and an adult. Openly discuss what would they do if they heard a fellow student threatening themselves or others. Encourage your kids to be aware and to speak up if they see or hear something that could escalate.

3) You tell me not to be scared, but why shouldn’t I be afraid? You’re afraid for me!

Our reactions become our children’s reactions. They take their cues from their parents and the adults who are supposed to be in charge. We need to remain calm and talk about what’s happening from a global perspective, honestly, keeping developmental level in mind, and allow emotions to unfold. It’s important not to encourage anxiety or irrational fear to rule. That mindset does nothing but fuel more fear and anxiety which is unhealthy and damaging over time.

Talk to them about ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) if it’s appropriate. Teach them how to stay calm so they can focus and make quick decisions if ever in an emergency. Share the unlikeliness of a school shooting, given the statistics. There are hundreds of thousands of schools in the country and millions of kids go to and return from school safely every day.

4) Can you promise me this won’t happen at my school?

Unfortunately, no. Just like a hurricane, fire or accident, no one can promise safety. However, we can control our own thoughts and the fear culture we create. While it’s important for kids to feel confident that the adults are taking action to protect them, they can be empowered to be vigilant so they themselves feel they can do something. Encouraging them to talk about other kids in school who may seem depressed, withdrawn, or angry instead of keeping it to themselves is a way for them to feel they can control their own safety.

5) Why do grown-ups “let” this happen?

It’s important to agree and validate their concerns even when they seem accusatory and confrontational. Remember they are coming from a place of fear due to uncertainty and insecurity. They see the students featured on the news and think that can easily be them. Assure them that you understand how it seems like the adults who are supposed to know what they are doing, do not and how scary that must feel. Ask questions. Ask them what they need to feel safer at school. Remind them how important it is for them to pay attention to any kids (or adults) who may seem a bit “off”.

Oftentimes when the investigations begin after a shooting, many people admit to knowing the shooter was showing warning signs. In the case of Parkland, Florida, there were calls to police. The warning signs were being flagged. What we can learn from this tragedy is to be aware and not to relent when threats are made.

The most important thing parents must do is create a safe environment in the home where all tough topics are free for discussion. Candor in discussing difficult topics with your children not only decreases the anxiety surrounding being judged, but alleviates unrealistic fears about the future. Also, shut off the news when kids are around and spend quality time with your children. They’re more resilient than you think; something as simple as going for a tech free walk after dinner or just watching a movie on your couch, will help them bond and feel safer.

Dr. Sanam Hafeez PsyD is a NYC based licensed clinical neuropsychologist, teaching faculty member at the prestigious Columbia University Teacher’s College and the founder and Clinical Director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C. a neuropsychological, developmental and educational center in Manhattan and Queens. 

Dr. Hafeez masterfully applies her years of experience connecting psychological implications to address some of today’s common issues such as body image, social media addiction, relationships, workplace stress, parenting and psychopathology (bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, etc…). In addition, Dr. Hafeez works with individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), learning disabilities, attention and memory problems, and abuse. Dr. Hafeez often shares her credible expertise to various news outlets in New York City and frequently appears on CNN and Dr.Oz.

Connect with her via twitter @comprehendMind or www.comprehendthemind.

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