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Discussing Safety with Children: Something I wish I wasn’t buzzing about.

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.

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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  • cak

    April 19, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    This post is a great service. Thank you! I decided to de-lurk to pass on some other really great resources. The National Association of School Psychologists has a lot of information posted (in printer friendly formats).
    Also, there is a handout specific to parents:
    The great thing about NASP is that all their information is research based and empirically supported.

  • Amanda

    April 19, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    I’m glad you opened this discourse. Discussing tragedy is a difficult task of all parents. One that is unfortunately unavoidable. Hurricane Katrina continues to have a huge impact on most of my family (in-laws included). Because of our situation, we were forced to explain what was occurring to our then four-year-old.
    I remember calmly discussing the hurricane and its impacts with my child. They were simple conversations about the immediate effects to our lives and the lives of my in-laws. (The hurricane “broke” our home, so we will not be able to move back. Yes, it broke Mamere’s home too. No, your uncle will not be able to fix what is broken.)
    We tried to explain about the people who were less lucky than our family. The concept of death is difficult to explain to any child. Honestly, we still find it hard to explain what happened to ourselves. This doesn’t mean our son hasn’t heard about it or seen it. Its unavoidable here.
    From my experiences, imperfect as they may be, I’ve learned to be honest, but simplistic. Definitely, a parent’s response will shape a child’s response. It also helps to have a strong support system (school support is extremely important). This is what has helped us get through the last year and half (almost two).
    My son is now five. The hurricane continues to be an occasional topic of conversation, but I don’t think it is one born out of fear any longer.

  • kaleigh

    April 19, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    Since I work at a children’s cancer hospital and my friends have a friend who’s a patient here, we’ve got a pretty good handle on talking about difficult subjects.
    My son (just turned 8) is my worrier. Hurricane Katrina was extremely hard for him. But we have friends who moved here (at first temporarily, now permanently) because of the storm. The dad and the son showed my son the pictures of what happened to their house (8 feet of water), but then took the time to explain how that could never even possibly happen here in Memphis.
    Tornadoes are much more likely to hit us, and he’s scared of those, too. Fortunately we live close enough to the riverbluff that we’re well-shielded from that kind of damage, as well, and I’ve explained that pretty thoroughly to him.
    But we also have discussed what we will do if we hear the sirens. We watch the radar maps when the weather gets bad. I can show him exactly where we are and exactly where the bad part of the storm is, and it seems to help him feel less afraid.
    We haven’t talked about the VT shootings, though. My husband teaches college and I know that would make my son nuts if we gave him any reason to think that Dad’s job isn’t safe.

  • slouching mom

    April 19, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    It’s funny. My nine-year-old son knows about 9/11. He knows a little about the Holocaust, about who Hitler was. He knows how poorly we treated Native Americans. He knows about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.
    But the Virginia Tech shootings, to my mind, are different from all of these. Even with 9/11, one could point to a cause — mind you, an insane, horrifying ideology, yet still an ideology — but here? Nothing but insanity and horror.
    So I have not told him. I would not be able to answer, “Why?,” to my satisfaction, and until I can, I think he doesn’t need to know.
    Worry without an object is awful and painful and tends to spread.
    No, thanks.

  • Lisa Milton

    April 20, 2007 at 10:19 am

    Thanks for the information. I have managed to bring two anxious kids into the world and am always seeking the right words, any guidance, to help them through the things that I just don’t understand myself.
    Eek gads.
    Love your sites.