The topic of school safety is one that is on everyone’s minds these days, especially in light of the recent tragic events in Parkland, FL. Here in Westport, CT where our Center is located, the local high school had to “shelter in place” followed by an early dismissal yesterday due to a potential threat, and a student was taken into custody after making threats of a mass shooting. In neighboring Fairfield, another individual was taken into custody last evening following threats to kill several high school students. While by all accounts both these incidents were handled skillfully and effectively, they undoubtedly leave kids and their families feeling scared and confused. For kids who are already struggling with emotional vulnerability, this is even more true. They will be looking to the adults around them for guidance and reassurance, so here are a few tips to help adolescents manage these situations:
Don’t simply say “don’t worry”
When was the last time that someone told you not to worry that it actually stopped you from worrying? Probably never. The reality is that many adolescents are worried, and it will feel invalidating and dismissive to them if you simply tell them not to. Let them know that you understand their concerns, and that they are important to you. In recent years, many school systems and communities have done a lot of work around putting together increased security measures and safety plans, and much of this information is readily available to the public. Contact your local police department and/or school system to get the information about your community, and talk with your teenagers about it. Help them to be informed, rather than afraid.
Not going to school is not an option
Many adolescents who struggle with anxiety-based disorders may have increased urges to avoid school or extracurricular activities out of fear. Again, while this is very understandable, it is not sustainable. Using avoidance as a strategy to regulate emotions generally only serves to increase that emotion. If kids stay home from school out of fear, that fear will likely increase, not decrease, over time and going back to school will be harder and harder. Model for them self-soothing strategies, and make sure they go to school equipped with whatever they will need to self-soothe during the day. Consider talking with school personnel to make them aware of your child’s increased anxiety, and find out what in school support systems are available.
Help them understand that social media doesn’t have all the information
In the incidents that happened locally, kids were all over social media trying to communicate with each other and get information about what was happening. High school students have fairly easy access to social media, yet varying levels of maturity to understand that the information they receive through Snapchat and Instagram is rarely accurate. Talk to them openly about what they are seeing online, and help them learn how to check facts on what they are reading.
This is a confusing and overwhelming time for both students and parents alike, even for kids who aren’t overly emotionally vulnerable. Through open communication and validation of their emotions related to safety issues, parents and other caregivers will be able to help students through these challenges.