Helping Children Cope With School Violence

(Published first on December 16, 2012)

I have received a number of inquiries, questions and comments from parents who know me in one capacity or another regarding the tragic shootings in Newtown Connecticut on Friday, December 14, 2012. Though the tragedy in Newtown may be among the most horrific in scope, ten months later we know it was not the last incident of school violence in the US and beyond. Therefore (and sadly) helping children cope with school violence with resources like this continues to be in demand. The following is what I have been sharing with parents, teens and educators who have contacted me in the days and weeks following the shootings in Newtown, and after other acts of school violence elsewhere as well:

Parents: Honor the emotions and real questions that come from your children, and resist saying or telling them more than they have asked about or what they may need to know or hear right now. It’s important to be honest with answers, especially with older elementary aged children, but don’t go overboard. When beginning a conversation, “zipper questions,” such as, “so what do you know,” or, “what have you heard,” or “How does all this make you feel,” are good places to start.

I believe that it is helpful to continue to affirm what we know as a statistical fact, that schools as a whole are safer than many if not most other places, and that your child will be taken care of and kept safe by the adults in their respective schools. To say anything less only instills fear, uncertainty and worry that does not add to their safety or emotional well-being.

Monitoring media intake of children right now is especially important too. And most experts recommend not allowing younger children to watch any of the video coverage of the tragedy at all. Better to slide in DVDs for watching movies or playing games that are appropriate for their age instead.

We too, as adults, benefit by apportioning our exposure to the endless video and first-person accounts on cable TV of the shootings. Doing so through osmosis can help our children, too. Print media is often a better place to get the facts, which is important, and then tune out in a reasonable time and go do something else.

While young ears are listening, I suggest that now is not the time to engage in outspoken dialog with other adults about the pros, cons and political ramifications of gun control and gun violence, where God was, or wasn’t, aspects of school security and psychological profiling of “could-be” offenders, all of which is swirling about on Facebook, TV and other social media right now. There will be plenty of time for those important discussions in the weeks and months ahead minus the understandable raw emotions we all feel at the moment.

Because of the sheer number of deaths and the fact that so many were young children, the carnage has become a national tragedy and has gripped the hearts of people everywhere. It may be helpful for us, as adults and as parents to understand and expect that numbness, sadness, anger and fear will be present within ourselves and our children in the days ahead. Making meaning of death is never easy, and making sense emotionally of such a horrific act for ourselves is near impossible. Finding ways to honor the lives and memories of those lost, even if by remaining aware of the funerals and prayer vigils in Newtown, can help, with time, to bring some sense of closure for us as parents and for our children. Everyone will hear about “how it all happened,” but parents can help their children who may be most affected to process too by sitting with them and explaining how the Newtown community comes together, grieves together, and honors the lives lost with funerals and memorial services. This is what we do as people the world over and for whatever reason, it helps, and moves us closer to healing.

Families connected to a faith community may find solace and comfort in both worship services and by the pastoral care that may be available through clergy and other faith leaders. This is an important resource not to be overlooked, which is available to both parents and children.

If this kind of support is not useful to you or if its unavailable, do consider speaking with a professional, especially if you find that you or your child continues to be impacted by this as time goes on. I tell parents and teens all the time that if we have a toothache, we go to the dentist, but when our hearts and minds are hurting, we keep thinking that it’ll go away. When it doesn’t, getting therapeutic help, like seeing the dentist, is what we need to do.

Having responded to in-school tragedy in our community many years ago, and having served on crisis teams over the years in area schools, I’m confident to say that parents can take some comfort in the fact that many teachers and most school officials have received training on how best to respond, and what information to share and not share within their school communities. Schools with good in-house sources of support for children and teens are, in my view, excellent places for young people to receive support following such a tragedy because their school is their community, first and foremost. Some parents are understandably hesitant to send their children back to any school after a school tragedy, but it’s really the very best place for them, too. Parents with specific questions should always feel empowered to speak directly with their respective school officials.

One of the challenging variables here is for young children riding the school bus to and from school for the first few days following a highly publicized tragedy. It is hard to know and impossible to control what other students might say that your child could overhear. It’s important for parents and after-school care providers to provide time and to listen closely and get a feel for how their child is doing upon arriving home after school.

Teens: Here’s what I’ve shared with a number of teens over the past few days:

  • Be gentle with yourself, this is hard stuff to make any sense of. Talk to your parents, a counselor in school, a teacher who you know who will listen and help.
  • When horrible things like this happen, it can make you really sad, angry and sometimes scared too. These are all natural feelings. Journaling and writing poetry helps some teens. Doing artwork helps others. Consider listening to music that you find soothing, that helps you chill, and avoid head-banger music that’s angry, and super loud.
  • Be careful online. There are lots of people pushing their causes right now on Facebook, YouTube and Tumblr. Some are angry, others have their facts wrong too. Everyone wants to do something, right now, it seems.
  • Remember that when we discuss things like death and violence online that some other kids out there have lost loved ones too, and all this is really hard for them to handle. If you’re their friend, reach out to them privately and let them know you’re thinking about them. It really helps.
  • It’s true, nothing can bring these people back. But what you can do is this: To honor the lives of those lost, consider doing something that helps others in your community. There are lots of ways to volunteer and help others, you just have to do it! It can help you to feel better too.
  • Keep in your head that it’s never okay for anyone to think using guns to commit violence is okay. If you see or hear of anyone, anywhere “talking stupid” do yourself and the world a favor by telling an appropriate adult right away. It’s always import.
  • Remember, talking with a parent, your parent, is still (usually!) the best thing you can do first. They’re old (!), they’ve been around forever and believe it or not, talking with them can help you to deal with all this. (Teens who know me can always contact me too, of course!)

I have included a few good online resources that parents might find useful to read.

American Psychological Association: 

National Association of School Psychologists:

National Child Traumatic Stress Network: 

– Kevin Lee

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