Children need reassurance in era of school violence

Children need reassurance about school violence

Who can forget the shock of the Columbine school shootings? Some who were students at the time are now parents themselves. Do they remember? Surely that horrifying experience haunts parents of every age.

Perhaps not. It seems to be human nature to put bad things out of our mind.

Just the same, some experts wonder if we have a so-called “Columbine Generation” that has grown up with school violence as a more or less common occurrence. If you include 9/11 as a segment of the picture, we have a group of young adults for whom violence in one form or another has been a central part of their lives.

Schools can and have taken extraordinary steps to make campuses and school buildings safe for students. They have instituted a variety of measures to alert both students and parents when a dangerous or violent situation arises. But none of these measures can take the place of parents advising and reassuring their children.

School shootings are rare. But like passengers in a plane crash, you don’t much care what the statistics are if you are in danger.

And while it is probably impossible for most of us to prepare mentally for a plane crash, we can help prepare our children for the post-Columbine era of school shootings and other forms of violence.

Professor Russell T. Jones, psychology instructor at Virginia Tech, claims there is something called “vicarious traumatization.” He says, “The phenomenon seems to suggest that being repeatedly exposed to other traumatic events can have a negative impact on a particular individual.”

He continues, in the WebMD online report “Mental Health,” that preliminary evidence suggests that even though they weren’t there or directly involved, “by witnessing it on television or knowing someone that was involved, [children] can in fact become traumatized at varying levels.” The clear message is that parents need to monitor and control their children’s TV, particularly when a school shooting consumes the evening television news.

It need not be just school violence that traumatizes your children. It may be the injury of a classmate in a car accident or the premature death of a fellow student from a congenital health problem.

Regardless, your children may seek an explanation. Talk with them.

Put the matter in perspective as best you can. And if you are having trouble doing that, don’t hesitate to ask for help. More than anything else, children want assurance, and parents are the most reassuring element in their young lives.

We can take steps to maximize safety and minimize accidents. We can instruct our kids how to avoid dangerous situations: “Look both ways before crossing the street. Stay away from those kids; they will just get you in trouble.” But life is not without problems or conflict.

Children internalize things differently than adults. They lack the experience to process information the way parents do. They may have a flood of powerful emotions that they cannot process and may not express. Parents need to be aware of this and be sure their children know they are willing to discuss a news event if the children want.

According to the Center for Disease Control, some common reactions of children to tragedy are:

— Feelings of loss, sadness, frustration, helplessness or emotional numbness.

— Troubling memories.

— Nightmares or difficulty falling or staying asleep.

— Loss of appetite.

— Difficulty concentrating.

— Feeling nervous or on edge.

And I would add three more: If your child’s grades suddenly changes for the worse or interaction with friends deteriorates, it’s time to talk to a school counselor. And do not ignore a child who starts making threatening statements to friends or family. It may be a cry for help.

The WebMD blog also offers this reminder. Families are the primary support unit for children. “The strength they can provide for each other is not something that can be offered by schools alone.” You can’t change the news. You can’t change some dreadful event in another community. You can, however, make sure you do not overreact. Maintain a calm reassuring home environment. And don’t let the fear of stigma keep you from getting the help your child needs if you feel inadequate to the task.

Charles Cummins, Ed.D., is a retired school administrator. Send questions to him at: [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts

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