By Sam Huppi and Chris Bereshnyi, Youth Services Clinicians
With all of the recent mass shooting incidents, it’s not surprising that many children, particularly younger ones, would have fears of such things happening at their school. If a child expresses these concerns, it’s helpful to reassure them that administration has protocols in place to keep them safe. However, how you talk to children depends on their age and maturity level. While addressing concerns utilizing a logical approach with adolescents can be effective, it may be lost on younger children.
Younger children benefit from an empathetic and validating approach; meaning it is helpful to tune into their emotions rather than their logic. Children, as with all people, experience emotions based on their thoughts and beliefs. These perceptions may be illogical or unrealistic but emotions are never wrong because it is what they feel. It is what the child is feeling that is most important to recognize. If your child is having thoughts and worries concerning an active shooter being in their school, listen to them. Let them explain their thought process, but tune into their emotions. Let them know you hear and understand what they’re saying and validate their emotions, such as “I can tell this is really worrying you. If I was thinking my school was unsafe I would feel scared too.”
Once the emotion has been recognized, younger children are usually more likely to receive comfort from their caregivers, and have a greater ability of processing their thoughts using a simple logic approach. You could also discuss with your child how many adults work at their school and they want everyone to be safe. Reassure them their school is protected, and plans are in place to keep it that way. It is also worth mentioning that parents need to pay attention to what they are communicating to their children, either directly or indirectly. If you feel the world is unsafe, most likely your child will too. It is difficult for a child to think positively and to have hope when their parents do not.
When talking to adolescents about these issues, one approach to take is pointing out that even though there have been multiple shootings, the odds are fairly low that a similar incident will occur at their school. Also, talking to them in greater detail about the plan the school has in place to address such occurrences can be reassuring, as this can minimize feelings of helplessness. If your teen is experiencing anxiety that is affecting their ability to function in day to day life, talking to a professional may be helpful. There are numerous techniques and coping skills that are useful in addressing anxiety-related issues.
To learn more about Salt Lake County Youth Services and how we can help with counseling, therapy, or prevention classes please visit our website at www.youth.slco.org or call 385-468-4500.