Help your child manage anxiety about school violence

In an illustration, a mother kneels to comfort her young daughter outside a school.
When discussing school violence, parents should adjust language to what children can manage. (Image: AdobeStock/Boston Children's)

With news of school shootings and other violence often reaching children, parents sometimes grapple with how to help their child cope with fear and stress. We asked Erica Lee, PhD, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Boston Children’s, to offer suggestions on how you can ensure your child feels safe and comfortable going to school.

Plan how you will talk to your child

First, consider what you’d like your child to know. This will vary by their age, emotional capacity, and ability to understand the world. It helps to keep things direct but basic. Sometimes parents feel like they’re sugarcoating if they tell their child they will be safe. But horrific events like school shootings are very rare, and the vast majority of children are safe when they go to school. Yet, you don’t want to lie to your child and act as if school shootings haven’t happened if they know they actually have. Validate their reactions, adjust your language to what they can manage, and reassure them that school shootings are statistically rare.

Be a source of information and assurance

Encourage your child to use you as a primary source of information. Ask if they have questions, what they’re unsure about, or what doesn’t make sense. If you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to tell them you’re unsure and that you’re going figure it out together. For older children, ask what they’ve heard from friends or seen on social media. This offers them a way to share what’s on their mind and process upsetting news with you. It also helps you check whether they’re picking up accurate information. 

For younger kids, keep it simple and concrete. Don’t go into detail. Reinforce the idea that some people do bad things, but most people are good. Use examples from your child’s life that resonate with them. If your child isn’t old enough to understand school shootings but is generally aware something scary happened, you can limit the conversation to how sometimes the world isn’t safe but you, their teachers, and other caring adults are working all the time to make their world safer. 

Manage their intake of news

Limit your child’s exposure to news, especially right after an incident. News reporting can include too many details for children. And the rehashing of the same facts can make school shootings and violence seem more common than they are. You can, however, use the news to your family’s advantage. If your child is older and can digest the information, watch the news with them. That gives you a chance to talk about it, assess their understanding, and offer comfort.

Help build support for your child at their school 

Learn about safety plans at your child’s school. Don’t hesitate to ask school officials for more information or clearer details, if necessary. If your child is anxious about attending school or having a hard time getting through the day, consider working with their school counselor to help your child practice coping skills. You can also help your child identify a trusted adult they can go to if they feel unsafe. 

Remember to take care of yourself, too

These events are deeply upsetting for everyone, especially parents. It can be easy to neglect your own needs. Be sure to check in with yourself. Make space for your feelings and take time to process your own reactions. Try to engage in healthy coping practices, such as going for a walk, talking to a friend, or practicing meditation. Taking care of your own needs allows you to model healthy coping to your family. 

Learn more about the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Boston Children’s Hospital. 

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