Is your child fearful or asking questions about school shootings? What can you do to help?

Q  I’m a single mother for 8 year old Lilly. I worry that her school will have a shooting like the one in Uvalde.  How can I help Lilly feel better about leaving home to go to school? How can I feel better about sending her to school?

A   It’s understandable why you are concerned.  You want to help your child through her fears and also assuage your own.  I was volunteering in Uvalde for several days just after the shooting in late May and my friend Marty was among the last group of mental health volunteers to be there.  Marty shared with me a few ideas that she gleaned from a school psychologist. Below I’ve joined her ideas with my own research in psychology and counseling for ways to tackle family fears about school shootings.

Here are some ideas and thoughts to consider:

  1. Remember there are vast numbers of schools in the United States that don’t have shootings compared to those that do have a shooting. On a national level, there were 24 school shootings in the United States, total in 2018 and 2019. There were 10 school shootings in 2020, and 34 school shootings in 2021. In 2022 so far there have been 27 school shootings (NPR Daily Newsletter, May 25, 2022). The number of K-12 schools in the US is 130,930 (data from the National Center for Education Statistics reported in The number of schools in Texas is 8,000 (Austin American Statesman, August 4, 2022). While the number of school shootings has seen an upward trend, the shootings compared to the number of schools in Texas and the USA is still small. Maybe even though chances are slim, you continue to think your school might have the next shooting, but try to reevaluate this fear in light of the facts and statistics.
  2. Limit your exposure as well as your child’s exposure to news media. Repeatedly hearing news about shootings is anxiety producing.
  3. Encourage your child to talk, write, or draw about going to school as this will help identify their concerns. You can also journal about your own fears and concerns about shootings.
  4. Be aware of your own reaction to school shootings. Kids turn to adults for comfort and information. They often take on your anxieties and behaviors. Give comfort, facts as needed and stay calm.
  5. Ask your child for their ideas about what would help them feel safer at school. Even if their ideas are far out, it helps for them to be listened to. For example, one boy I heard of asked his mom to buy him a bulletproof backpack after he’d heard about a school shooting. So she did—she bought him bulletproof inserts for his backpack, and this helped the boy feel better about going to school. Do listen to your child.
  6. Helpful books include:Once I was Very Very Scared by Chandra Ghosh Ippen. This book is for the very young students. It is about animals who go through scary experiences. Another highly rated book for young children is: The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld, also available in Spanish. A book for older children is Coping Skills for Kids Workbook: Over 75 Coping Strategies to help kids Deal with Stress, Anxiety, and Anger by Janine Halloran.
  7. Older children can use their anxiety and anger energy to help solve the problems by addressing issues contributing to the shootings. For example, working with peers to get more mental health help for students on their campuses.
  8. Get involved in your child’s school. It will comfort your child to know you are involved. You can make a big difference and be part of problem solutions.
  9. Maintain a similar schedule for your child each day. The routine of getting ready for school and going to school helps your child. Other routines also help. Children feel more secure when they have routines.

 Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.

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