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Discussing Safety with Children

By Melissa Summers

We thought, in light of this week’s tragedy at Virginia Tech, it would be a good day to share some resources to help parents talk to children about school violence. It’s relatively easy for me to shield my kids from news reports and images about these tragedies. After 9/11, my daughter was not quite three years old so we got information during nap time and off the internet. After Hurricane Katrina I left out large parts of the tragedy in the aftermath of the hurricane so my daughter could continue to feel safe in the world. Even after the shootings at the Amish schoolhouse last year, I was able to gloss over it with my 7 year old.

But something about the Virginia Tech shootings feels like a breaking point in me. I still feel the world is mostly good and it’s foolish to live life afraid of what ‘might’ happen. Last week there was a shooting at an office building near where my husband used to work. On Tuesday a little girl died on the playground in a neighboring community when a flag pole fell on her in high winds.
My daughter goes to bed and stays awake for hours worrying about who will be her next substitute teacher. She worries that tomorrow she’ll forget her library book. She worries that she’ll have to go to the bathroom at school when Sarah told her it’s haunted. Do I want to add a flagpole falling on her at recess to the list? Do I want to add an angry man shooting her in her classroom to the list?

I think what I realized this week is we can’t stop the madness in the world, bad things are going to continue to happen and I’m going to have to teach my children how to live in a world like that. It makes me furious that my children have to have lockdown drills. It makes me feel a little broken that I can’t even convince myself anymore that the world is just paranoid. Last night as we talked about the lockdown drill (which we’ve talked about 429 times so far) I told Maddie, “It’s just like a fire drill or a tornado drill. It probably won’t ever happen, daddy and I have never been in a fire or a tornado in our whole lives, but it’s good for everyone to know what to do if it does happen.”She said, “But that’s why I’m afraid of tornado drills and fire drills….because they make it seem real.”

I knew exactly what she meant. So, I could use some guidance and maybe you can too.

The Washington Post blog On Parenting has a short set of guidelines from the Mental Health Association to follow when talking to children about the shootings. This related article called “Places of Safety and Learning” is also a worthwhile read. I’ll be reading it with my daughter when she gets home from school. It puts a lot of things about school safety into perspective, like the fact that schools are safer now because of the school shootings in the last decade and also that “…there are thousands of schools in this country, and at most of them nothing violent will ever happen. So you don’t need to be afraid when you go to school, you just need to know what to do if something bad does happen.”

I’ve pulled several good approaches to try with my daughter like, “Discuss safety precautions taken by authorities, such as no outside recess, and compare these to other safety precautions such as seat belts and smoke detectors.”

I notice my daughter watching my husband and I very carefully whenever the topic comes up, gauging our response. “When surrounded by news or talk of events, worry can be contagious – from child to child, adult to adult, and from parent to child. Calm parents encourage calm in their children.” I’ve often worried talking about these things too much makes them an obsession but this is a good point as well. “Provide an environment for ongoing conversations; talking about being afraid doesn’t make a person more afraid.”

How old is your child and how do you talk to them about traumatic events?

My heart goes out to all the victims, families and survivors of the Virginia Tech tragedy.

Published April 19, 2007. Last updated August 29, 2018.
Melissa Summers
About the Author

Melissa Summers

Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.


Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.

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