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As high school students across New Jersey and the country speak out for safer schools in the wake of the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, we parents are grappling with how to protect and educate our kids about gun violence. Tragedies in Newtown, CT and Parkland are painful proof that mass shootings can happen anywhere. In NJ, the month after the Parkland tragedy saw an escalation in school security threats. Despite all this, we’re told our children’s schools are among the safest places to be. As parents, it’s hard to find that reassuring. So, what should we do and what do we say to our kids? We asked the experts for advice on how to start a dialogue.
Don’t panic (or pretend everything is okay).
This year has already proven to be a sobering one. “The number of school shootings [has] increased but despite that, schools are still relatively safe environments for children,” says David J. Schonfeld, MD, FAAP, a renowned expert in child grief and the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. “But they don’t have zero risk, so don’t pretend not to be distressed. It’s not easy with emotions running so high, but it’s important to acknowledge what’s been happening without letting terror take over. Life isn’t about zero risk and it was never about zero risk.”
Assure young kids that the adults are on it.
As we’ve all come to realize, school safety isn’t a guarantee. “But parents can let children know [that] there are many things being done to keep them safe in school and elsewhere in the community,” says Schonfeld. Everything from keeping back doors locked to IDing all visitors to hosting monthly drills are steps schools can take. Beyond that, most schools would be reluctant to give out every detailed security procedure, says Kevin M. Craig, the director of safety and security for Sussex’s High Point Regional High School. However, it’s still important to emphasize the idea that experts are on the case behind the scenes.
Reinforce school safety procedures.
Make sure your children know their school’s safety protocols—they’ll feel more secure if they know how to handle emergencies. “Ask them what they do during fire and security drills to check for understanding, and make sure they know the appropriate responses,” says Craig. Older children may have a better understanding of the procedures while younger students should be encouraged to follow the directions of their teachers during an emergency.
Give them permission to tattle.
“Encourage students of all ages to report concerns that they see, hear or view on social media,” says Craig. Find out who their go-to grown-up is at school (maybe even set up an introduction), and let them know they should never feel bad about reporting something suspicious. “School officials and police would rather investigate hundreds of reports that turn out to be non-credible than have a single incident go unreported and end in a tragedy,” Craig adds. Remind kids that reporting safety concerns isn’t snitching.
Manage media influence.
Are your kids hooked on social media? “Ask them to explain what they’re learning about the situation and if they have any questions,” Craig says. The goal is to limit the excesses of the 24/7 news cycle while allowing for age-appropriate information. Find out what’s up, then shut it down.
“After a major crisis, you want to find out what’s happening so you have relevant info and know what to do. And after that, you should stop watching,” says Schonfeld.
Help kids manage their feelings.
Children need to know they can handle what life throws at them. So instead of downplaying their feelings in an effort to make the monsters go away, foster resilience by helping them find positive ways to cope with their fears and anxieties. This includes healthy distractions like sports, walking the dog, spending time with friends and family, journaling, mindfulness or talking to someone—anything that reduces distress. “Fall back on what works with your child. Use your toolbox from the past,” says Schonfeld. Ask your kids about their specific concerns. You may be able to quickly clear up misinformation and fear sprung from vivid imaginations. Chances are you’re just as anxious as your kid (if not more), so make sure you model those same healthy distractions.
Foster philanthropy in any form.
“Helping others is a way to feel more in control after you’ve been through a tragedy. It gives you a feeling that you have some agency,” says Schonfeld. Kids often want to directly help victims after horrific events. But since that’s not always possible, prompt your children to think creatively about who they can help. “As long as it’s meaningful to the child, any act [of] charity will help them feel better,” he says. It’s a healing action that makes the world still feel like a kind and loving place.
Advocate for change.
Could those Parkland teens be any braver? They’ve transformed their sorrow and rage into a movement to change our country’s gun laws. And that’s how you fight through fear. You quiet the chaos in your mind by taking control of the narrative—and vow to make it better for the future. Recent school walkouts showed the power of local advocacy by sending a message to the nation and the world: gun violence cannot continue. “What the kids have done is exceptional,” says Schonfeld. Encourage your children to find their own unique way to make a difference, and get to know the numerous organizations working towards changing laws and making our schools safer.
Groups Fighting for Change
The CSGV works with scientists to draft, pass and implement legislation that thwarts gun violence.
Want to let your local legislator know how you feel? Visit this site to find and contact your representatives.
This organization is rallying communities across the country to advocate for gun control.
This group demands legislators and corporations act to protect kids from gun violence.
The pen is mighty. Legal experts research, write, and defend the laws, policies, and programs that protect citizens from gun violence.
Founded by parents whose kids were killed in the Newtown shooting in 2012, this group trains students and adults to recognize the signs of gun violence.
Want to know where your lawmakers stand on gun control? Vote Smart’s mission is to provide free, factual and unbiased info on our representatives and candidates.
Jennifer Kantor is a freelance writer. She lives in Maplewood with her husband and two children.