Dear SAFE: How do I talk to my kids about violence?

Written by Piper Stege Nelson

As the mom of two elementary school kiddos, I have been thinking a lot about school safety. A colleague here at SAFE passed on a great document about how to talk to your kids about violence and it has been really helpful. Below are some of the tips.

Reassure children that they are safe

Tell them that school is a safe place. Make sure that they can tell you the name of at least one adult at home and one adult at school (and, for mine, one adult in aftercare) to whom they can go if they feel threatened or at risk.

Make time to talk

Listen to your kiddos, and validate the feelings they have. Some kids can just find the words for their emotions (my son), and some need more help; my daughter frequently needs to draw things to explain or address her emotions. And watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or holding on to you when cuddle time is over.

Provide age-appropriate information

Being transparent but age appropriate in your messaging is so important. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to give.

Limit media of these horrific events

Limit television viewing and radio listening about violent incidents, and be aware if these are on in common or public areas (i.e., waiting rooms or restaurants). Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. My daughter will pointedly ask me to turn off the radio when there is a mention of violence.

We as adults also need to be careful about the conversations we have in front of kiddos, even teenagers.

Find out what your school is doing about safety

Learn if they have drills, when they take place, what the kids are told to do, and what words the school uses about why they are having drills. My kiddos practice “lockdown” at their school — they have to stay against the wall, out of site of the window, so the “bad guys” can’t see them. And they are told that it is just a practice, that it is not a real lockdown.

Review safety procedures

Once you know what they do at school, have them remind you from time to time. Also let your kiddo know in an age-appropriate way that they should be observant and tell adults they trust if they see or hear something that makes them feel uncomfortable, nervous, or frightened.

Especially make sure they know to tell an adult if they suspect someone has a gun.

Take care of yourself

Make sure that you are finding healthy ways of dealing with these violent incidents. I talk to my husband, talk to my therapist, talk to my friends. I exercise. I try to meditate. And I still find myself crying at work about babies getting shot at school.

But as a parent it is all the more important that you process your own feelings and fears — not just because your kids will take their cues from you, but because you deserve care, too.

You can find the full list of National Association of School Psychologists’ tips and even exact language to use with kids here.

P.S. One tip not listed by NASP was “Maintain a normal routine.” Man, I try… but we all know that being a parent, possibly with a job, with kids who have activities, in a city with lots going on, makes routine hard. But I can certainly see how it would help!