Note: An earlier version was originally posted in Pediatric Safety on December 20, 2012
The Saturday after the Newton tragedy, I got a note from a mother who wrote, “My six-year-old daughter just asked me, ‘What if someone starts shooting kids at my school? What should I do?’ It breaks my heart that my child even has to think about something this horrible! What can I possibly say or do that will help her?”
Countless parents, teachers, and other caring adults are now having to answer frightening questions like this from their children.
I wrote to this mother, “First of all, in a very reassuring and matter-of-fact voice, tell your daughter, ‘That’s a very scary idea. I know you might be hearing a lot about this lately, but it almost never happens!’”
This answer is a good start but it is not enough. Because it does happen. Shootings happen more often in neighborhoods that are struggling with violence. But kids and their adults get killed even in peaceful little communities like Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado. As adults, we are acutely aware that, if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.
So I recommended that this mother tell her little girl what she most needs to know, in a very warm voice, being careful not to sound or look upset herself, and say, “Lots of people are working hard to make sure that this kind of problem doesn’t happen here. I will do everything in my power to keep you safe!”
Because kids need to know what to do without having to think about the scary details of what this might mean, I recommended that this mother explain, “If someone is acting dangerously, the safest thing to do is to get away from that person and to get to safety where there are grownups who can help you. If your teachers tell you what to do, you follow their directions, quickly and quietly. If someone is being dangerous and you don’t know what to do, you run away from that person and get to safety. This plan will keep you safe most of the time, even if someone is acting dangerously.”
Children take their cues from adults. If we act calm and in control, they are likely to follow our lead. In London during the air raids, people were crowded into shelters while bombs were falling. I have heard stories about how the kids in shelters where the air raid wardens acted terrified became traumatized themselves. Kids in shelters where the air raid wardens led everyone in singing and cheering when they could hear their pilots fighting back were far less likely to show signs of trauma. The kids were in just as much physical danger in both situations. But they had far less emotional damage when their adult leaders acted hopeful and powerful instead of helpless and in despair.
Acting out what to do for different kinds of emergencies can help to prepare children and adults alike to take quick action if they need to. Just like fire drills, if a dangerous person safety drill is done in a calm and matter-of-fact way, this can help to reduce anxiety. In our Kidpower workshops, we coach children to be successful in practicing how to handle different kinds of safety problems with people, depending on what issues these families, schools, and youth organizations are dealing with at that time.
In one first grade classroom after one highly publicized school shooting, the children’s anxiety about not knowing what to do was so high that I decided to lead a special practice for them right away. I sent the teachers and parents out of the two doors of the classroom to be “Safety” for the kids to go to outside. Then I said, “Pretend that I am starting to act dangerously. Stand up, go quickly outside, and ask your grownups for help.” (We don’t want to put scary pictures in kids’ minds that are not already there, so I stood there calmly, not acting scary but just asking the children to imagine that I was about to do something unsafe.)
Immediately, 30 children streamed out of the room and into their arms of their parents and teachers, who stood waiting and said earnestly, “I will help you!” And then, everyone then came back inside, sat down feeling much calmer, and we went on with our workshop!
But what about today? What are the best steps we can take right now, when anxiety is apt to be at its peak, to help our kids through this? First of all, we need to take action to protect children from further emotional trauma. Here are four recommendations from The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults:
1) Shield younger children as best we can. Turn off the news. Protect them from overhearing ourselves and other adults talking about this.
2) Give kids support for their feelings without burdening them with ours. Listen rather than talk. Think carefully before taking children to memorials or vigils where adults are actively grieving.
3) Answer kid’s questions in a reassuring, truthful, age-appropriate way. Ask them what they have heard and if they have any questions. Only give them the information they really need to hear. If kids are feeling bad about a tragedy, give them positive actions they can take to help make the world a better place.
4) Give children and teens extra attention and love. Do fun things together. Watch for signs of stress. Ask calmly, “Is there anything you have been wondering or worrying about that you haven’t told me?” Get professional help if a child continues to feel very anxious.
As caring adults, we all need to work together to take social action that can help to prevent this kind of violence in the future. Addressing the larger social issues that can lead to mass shootings is going to take time. In the meantime, the number of shootings is increasing, and we must find ways to make our schools safer and prepare our teachers just in case.
A number of experts have pointed out that our society has invested a lot of money over the years to make our schools safe from fire, with flame-proof building materials, fire alarms, and sprinkler systems. And the result is that no one has died in a fire in a school in recent years. Our schools are filled with our most precious resource, our children, and we need to protect them from sudden violence just as we do from other dangers.
One way we can honor the memory of the innocent children and courageous educators whose lives have been lost is to increase our investment in making schools safer for children and school staff alike – and in taking difficult actions so that our society becomes safer for everyone.
Schools need help to become prepared to make it harder for a dangerous person to get into a school and easier for adults to protect kids in the event of a violent emergency. There needs to be a quick warning system that all adults know how to use. Classrooms need windows and doors that teachers can quickly lock and cover.
Effective plans will be realistic and will empower adults with training so they can make quick decisions by thinking problems through ahead of time. In an active shooting emergency, the safest plan depends on where the attack is coming from, where the kids are at that moment, and the set-up of the school. Sometimes the safest answer is to get into the room, lock the doors, close the windows, crouch down, and hide. Sometimes the safest plan is to run away and get to a place away from the person shooting.
We need to keep our perspective and make rational plans rather than react out of panic. The challenge is to find the right balance between security and living our lives. For example the most dangerous thing we let our children do is to ride in a car. Even though cars are much safer thanks to seat belts, air bags, car seats, and greater awareness of the dangers of distracted driving, terrible accidents can still happen. Yet despite the risks, most of us still drive cars.
The reality is that life is not risk free. Our job as caring adults is to prepare for potential dangers as best we can, live our lives as joyfully as possible, and teach our children to do the same!
Kidpower’s child safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Recent publications include the Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, the Kidpower Safety Comic Series, and Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe. Many families, schools, and youth organizations use Kidpower’s positive and practical curriculum for their bullying, child abuse and violence prevention training programs. Kidpower workshops, K-12 safety curriculum, books, videos and other services have helped to protect more than 2 million young people from abuse, bullying, and other violence since 1989. http://www.kidpower.org