If you have school-age children, you’re probably aware of “active shooter” or “lockdown” drills. Unlike the fire drills many parents are accustomed to from their school days, these drills are used to prepare students, teachers, and staff for emergency situations involving gun violence and mass shootings. Although the intended purpose of these drills is to ensure the safety of the school community, they can also have a negative psychological impact on children’s minds.
These drills generally involve actions like hiding in designated safe spaces, remaining silent, and cooperating with law enforcement officers during a lockdown. But because young children understand upsetting events differently than older children and adults, these drills may inadvertently blur the lines between reality and simulation. The result can cause confusion, anxiety, and stress. These feelings can lead to difficulty focusing on schoolwork, affect their social relationships, and can even impact their physical health.
Although active shooter drills will most likely continue as long as gun violence is a threat to school safety, parents can protect their child’s emotional health by helping to alleviate stress and anxiety these drills may cause. The key is to understand where your child is developmentally. This understanding can guide your responses to your child and help you determine the best way to deal with their concerns. It can be helpful to keep the following in mind:
Consider what is developmentally appropriate: Younger children may have questions about why these drills are happening. However, before providing lots of details, it’s best to follow their lead about how much information to share. As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., explain in Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, “Do not overwhelm children with information. It’s always best to give bare facts followed by reassurance.”
It’s normal for children of this age to worry about their own health and safety and if they will be affected by a school shooting. If they ask questions about these concerns, parents should work to alleviate their anxiety by explaining that their child’s health and safety is their top priority. It may be helpful to add, “I know hearing these stories can be worrisome. Mom and dad’s top priority is keeping you safe and healthy. I know that we can hear a lot about these events in the news, but the likelihood of this happening at your school is very, very, very low. These drills are precautionary and another way to take care of ourselves, kind of like the way we brush our teeth every night even though we don’t have any cavities or take our vitamins every day. You are the most important thing to mom and dad and it is our job to make sure that you are safe.” If it’s applicable, you could add your own experience, “We had to do fire drills and drills in case of bad weather, similar drills as you when we were children, but neither of us ever saw a fire in school or experienced a tornado.””
Ease separation anxiety: It’s common for children to show signs of separation anxiety when they are processing troubling events. Since children feel safest with their parents, they can develop a strong need to be near their parents when they feel scared. In these instances, offer your comfort and acknowledge their feelings. Try not to agree with their anxieties by, for example, allowing them to stay home from school. Instead offer your relationship to help them process their experience. It could sound something like, “I know that you are worried because of the safety drills. I know it can be hard to do them. I’m happy to hear what that’s like for you, if you’d like to talk about it. Maybe after school you and I can bake cupcakes together and you can tell me about your day.” Remaining kind and understanding, and offering time together can help to alleviate many of their worries.
Put nightmares into context: Another common way children respond to anxious or upset feelings is by having nightmares. As parents, it’s helpful to remember that bad dreams are an attempt to deal with lingering emotional upsets. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “Dreams are stories we tell ourselves for a reason. We just have to understand the reason.” So, if you suspect that your child’s nightmares are related to a drill at school, encourage them to try to connect the dream with the lingering fears they may have about the drill. For example, you can ask your child at bedtime if they have any leftover bothersome feelings from the day. Try not to talk your child out of their feelings or concerns, instead remain open and available to hear their thoughts and feelings. Offer your understanding to soothe their concerns and reassure them that you will continue to take good care of them and make sure they’re safe.
Engage Respectfully: Older children can engage in abstract reasoning and have more complex conversations about topics like gun violence. Since they are processing their world and trying to make sense of it on a deeper level than younger children, they may express strong opinions and views about the topic of guns. In these instances, it’s helpful to be an active listener and reflect what you hear them saying. For example, you may say something like, “It sounds like you think that guns should be banned. Tell me more.”
If your teen is sharing their opinions, acknowledge and empathize with their thoughts and feelings. Remain positive and available to understand their point of view. As adolescents, they’re taking in a lot of information about the world through various forms of media and need the space and time to understand and evaluate their own thoughts about the complexities of our world today. If you disagree with your teen’s viewpoint, remain respectful of them and their right to have their own thoughts and opinions. When you offer your point of view in a respectful and inquisitive manner you are modeling thoughtful and constructive communication, and how best to handle discussions when their opinions may differ from others by being patient, curious, and understanding. But above all, avoid power struggles.
It’s also important to offer hope for your child if they are feeling pessimistic. Share with them the activism and fundraising that is going towards this issue and offer a role model that is leading the charge to make things better. Letting your teen know that you are hopeful, will support their positive outlook.
Active shooter drills are unfortunately a way of life for many schools. Of course, in some communities violence and shootings are more of a reality than in others and additional support is necessary to ensure children’s safety. Modeling to children, both young and older children, how to turn to a trusted and caring relationship to process their emotions is the best way to cope with events that are out of their control. By acknowledging fearful emotions, allowing children to express themselves without fear of judgment, and offering your kind ear is the salve for troubling or scary feelings.
It's especially important to let children know that their fear and anxiety is understandable and normal. Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper illustrate this as follows, “Let your children know you are affected by the tragedy, while at the same time you show you are optimistic about the future. Children often feel there is something wrong with being upset or expressing upset feelings; this is an opportunity to tell them that you and other adults feel troubled too.”
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Smart Love Family Services, April 2010.