The New Reality for School

I love the beginning of fall. School has just begun, with all of the excitement and anticipation it brings. It is like the children’s version of New Year’s Eve, but with all of their promises and resolutions for the new school year. While many of us remember the initial first-day-of-school jitters from our childhoods, children today face horrors that were not even part of our worst nightmares. How do they go to school every day when the level of violence and school shootings have become part of not only their nightmares, but their reality? How do we, as parents, therapists, and teachers, talk to them about these fears without scaring them even more?

1. Open the door.

Many parents I talk to are afraid to speak to their children about violence in the school. “If I bring it up to them, it will just make them think about it more.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news here, but our children are already thinking about the violence, whether we talk to them about it or not. Just last week, I had a 6-year-old patient tell me she was scared to go back to school because, “What if another monster animal comes in to hurt us like at that other school?”

This is a child who is not particularly anxious and has had limited experience with school violence. Whenever teenagers talk with me about school, many of them bring up bomb threats, shootings, and so on as part of their every-day vocabulary. This is not only happening in “bad” sections of town–this is everywhere. Our children ARE thinking about these things.

You need to be a part of the conversation.

So the question is: Do you want them to only talk to their friends about this new reality they face, or do you want to be part of those conversations? Ask them what it is like at their school. Do they feel frightened? Have they heard any rumors about upcoming violence?  No, these do not need to be daily conversations, but asking these questions occasionally lets them know you are open to discussing these things. The worst that may happen is hearing, “Oh mom and dad. You’re being silly.”

I believe the benefits far outweigh that risk.

2.Validate their feelings.

Statistically speaking, most of our children will go their entire education without experiencing any significant violence or trauma in their school environment. Reminding them of this may be a necessary initial statement. Yet, with the ever looming presence of school tragedies in the news and social media, these stories seem all too close and personal.

Validate how they are feeling. Let them speak without judgment, interruption, or minimizing.

3. Take action.

Ask your children what measures can be taken for them to feel safer. Whether it’s keeping their cell phone nearby, taking a self-defense class, or talking to school personnel about what safety measures their specific school take, encourage them to take action. If they have ideas, urge them to talk to their principal about what may be feasible.

One young lady I know took it upon herself to start an informal meeting of students to discuss violence, bullying, and so on every month. Last year, she watched the number of students in attendance increase each month. Yes it is true that there are many things in life that are out of our control. However, we can still work to empower our young people, so the fears are not so prevalent in their minds.

The thing about our kids is that they are strong and  resilient. They prove that to us every day. And as much as we want to, we can’t keep them bubble-wrapped. We can’t alleviate all of their fears, but we can walk alongside them and help  navigate this new reality they live in. Have a safe and happy school year!

Shannon Kersey is a psychologist in private practice in Huntersville, NC.