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Preventing Violence in Our Schools

Taking the Terror out of School Shootings

Ronald L. Pitzer, Family Sociologist and Professor — Family Social Science and Stephan Carlson

Written 2002; reviewed 2005.

The recent school shooting raises a lot of questions for children (and grown-ups too). How can anyone hurt others? How can I be sure that this won't happen to me or my parents? Who would do such a thing? Why? Can I do something?

While there are no easy answers about these kinds of events, children will want an explanation from parents and teachers. A complete explanation will not be easy, it may not even be possible, but we must try. We must strive for a balance between helping a child feel safe and acknowledging the existence of violence, evil and danger in the world.


Your children very likely will feel vulnerable and may need help coping with their feelings.

Their first reaction will probably be fear. They will wonder whether it could happen to them.

You need to reassure your children that they are safe, but you cannot guarantee that bad things will never happen to them. Assure them that this is very unlikely, that everyone is working to make sure they are as safe as possible, and that you will always keep them as safe as you can.

Help your children to remember and identify how much safety there is in their lives, how much they know about your love and devotion to them. Let them talk about good times: birthdays, Christmases and Thanksgivings. Remind them of getting hugs when feeling down, ill or injured.

Keep in mind that the age of your child makes a difference in how you need to react. Children under three may not be affected at all. Children between the ages of three and five are often aware of outside issues. Children over five usually have some pretty distinct reactions to these issues. Here are some guidelines to help you talk to your child.

For preschoolers who haven't seen the photos or news reports:

Do not bring it up, but if they suddenly change their behavior or are afraid to go to day care, ask if they've heard or seen something that is scaring them. Then you need to talk about it.

For preschoolers who have seen reports on the news:

Begin by saying, "That looks pretty scary, doesn't it? What do you think about it?" Explain that there were some people who didn't care about hurting others and they did a very dangerous thing. Again, assure your child that something like that will probably never happen to them and that you will be here to keep them as safe as you can.

For school-age children:

It's OK to ask if they have seen the reports and admit to them that it's a very scary thing. Talk about your own feelings by saying, "I'm very sad for all of those people and their families." But go on to tell them that it's important not to let what happened scare us so much that we don't have fun and enjoy our lives.

Your children may want to work through their feelings of sadness by helping out through raising money for the families of victims or by drawing pictures and sending them to affected families. Focus on all the people who are helping. Children need to know that when something bad happens there are good people who come to help.

For teenagers:

Teen-agers may or may not want to talk about the event. The older the child, the more effective it is to talk about your own feelings first. If you can express your feelings of anger and perhaps even confusion, it may help your teen-ager to open up. You also should approach the subject of possible results of the tragedy, such as increased racism. Many Native American and other minority groups will be treated poorly based on this act of school violence. Make sure to get across to your children that this shouldn't affect the way they look at any one group of people.

Maybe most importantly, heed the words of former President Clinton after the bombing in Oklahoma City, "remember that your children may need a lot more hugs for a while."

Teachers and Child Care Providers

Teachers and child care providers should be aware of each child's reaction to the disaster. Their response can greatly affect the child's perspective and should be presented carefully. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) offers the following suggestions:

Do not expose young children to television or radio broadcasts about the incident.

But don't say, "I don't want you to watch this," which only creates anxiety. Instead, provide alternative activities. If children do see televised images of the incident, reassure them that it happened far from where they live.

Convey stability and calm.

Children react strongly to the feelings of the adults around them. Even very young children pick up adults' uncertainty, anxiety, and grief. Since denying our distress only makes children anxious, teachers and child care providers should admit that they are feeling sad and upset, but about a disaster in a far-away city.

Keep in mind that young children often have very different perceptions of a disaster. They don't always make the sorts of connections we might expect. They're not worrying, "I'm not going to be safe in my school," or "Dad won't be safe at work." Instead, they may be experiencing a general feeling of not being safe or a fear that their parents might leave them.

One thing that fuels such feelings is seeing adults talking in anxious and worried tones. It's natural for distressed adults to want to talk to one another, and we need to do so. But we should not talk among ourselves in children's presence. Scariest of all is seeing adults huddled together, obviously talking about something (or watching something) they don't want children to hear or see. Teachers and child care providers may want to get together to talk through their feelings and concerns after the children have gone home for the day.

Take your cues from the children themselves.

Many of the children may not be aware of the shooting at all, others only dimly so, and perhaps one or two children may have seen or heard something that has caused them anxiety. Don't initiate discussions about the event. Watch the children at play. Young children are more likely to let us know what they have seen or heard and how they're feeling about it through their play than through their words. If their behavior or words make you think that they are trying to deal with the event, ask questions in a low-keyed manner. Ask what they know, what they have seen or heard, and respond accordingly.

For instance, if a child has seen TV images of injured, bloody people being taken from the site, focus on how the doctors can help the people, just as our doctor helps us.

The child who has heard about the event, perhaps from older siblings, needs to hear that the people who commit this type of act are not well.

Focus on the child's concerns. There's no point in talking about the shooting with a child who is anxious about the bleeding victims, or in discussing the injured when the child is worried about fires.

Making Children Feel Safe

Whether at home, school, or day care, what children need most is to feel that the situation is under control. At a time like this, when adults are feeling anxiety, grief, and helplessness, we must struggle to keep ourselves focused on what we can do to make children feel safe.

This is also a chance for adults to show respect for children through their beliefs that children have rights to affection, nurturing, safety and protection from adults.

If a child continues to be distressed or shows persistent signs of anxiety such as changes in behavior, increased aggression, nightmares, clinginess, headaches, tummy aches, shyness, poorer concentration, loss of appetite or trouble sleeping, consider an evaluation by a mental health professional who specializes in caring for children.

This fact sheet contains information compiled from articles previously published by Julia Rosa and Judy Myers-Wall.

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