Like parents everywhere, my heart breaks for the parents of the children who were murdered in Newtown, as well as for the entire Sandy Hook Elementary School community that must somehow find the strength and the hope to begin to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. In the past few days I am sure that we have all had the frightening thought that this could have been our school; we are all well-aware that no one is ever entirely safe from random acts of violence. This weekend, I was reminded of the evening of September 11, 2001, when I tucked my children, ages 5 and 7, into bed after a harrowing day at school. As I drew the shades to hide the image of black smoke still billowing from the ruined buildings across the river, I grieved inside for what felt like a loss of innocence; I knew that my children would not be able to live in a world devoid of violence and fear, and I knew that I had to quickly figure out how I was going to be the parent they needed me to be. As frightened and as bewildered as I was, I knew that I had to be strong and resilient in order to provide my children with the sense of safety and protection they needed more than ever.
The National Association of School Psychologists has said that in supporting our children, it is important that we, as adults, “model calm and control; reassure students that they are safe; remind them that trustworthy people are in charge; and let them know it is okay to feel upset.” So how do we stay strong and exude a feeling of calm and control when we’re feeling scared, anxious, and confused on the inside? What can we do in the face of helplessness?
1. We can protect our children from overexposure to the event.
This means making sure that younger children are not viewing these frightening images on the television and other media outlets at all, and that exposure for older children is limited. It also means that we, as adults, are not talking about the event within earshot of our children.
2. We can be prepared to talk to our children if they need us.
This means doing a little research about how to communicate in age-appropriate ways should the issue come up or if we think they should hear it from us instead of from other sources. There is no shortage of useful information on the internet. Here is one good link from The National Association of School Psychologists: “Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers”http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/talkingviolence.pdf
3. We can recognize and trust that safety is a partnership.
As parents, we can’t help but question the safety of our children when they are not under our direct supervision, whether at school, in extracurricular activities or even on play-dates with trusted friends. While it’s natural to question the safety measures in place, it’s important that we trust the school’s commitment to safety as the highest priority. Our safety planning and preparation includes regularly practiced drills for bomb threats, non-dire emergency evacuation, shelter in place, and active shooter.
4. We can put things in perspective.
Because these events are so horrific and they get played out so thoroughly on television news, it can feel like they’re becoming an epidemic. In truth, schools remain one of the safest places for children to be.
5. We can take care of ourselves.
This should probably include not subjecting ourselves to the frightening images and stories on the news in the wake of one of these attacks. It’s hard to remain strong and confident when we are being bombarded with reminders of the tragedy. We can certainly ensure that our children are not exposed to the media coverage.
6. We can get professional help if needed.
We all need to be sensitive to signs of excessive anxiety in our children or ourselves and seek professional help if needed. In this day and age, there is no reason for anyone to suffer anxiety without support. There are wonderful tools and strategies out there to help us cope with difficult challenges. If a child is diabetic and needs insulin, no logical parent would deny them that treatment. We need to view the need for psychological support in the same light.
7. We can count our blessings.
As we all know but can frequently forget, life is precious and every day is a gift. There is only so much we can control, and one of those things is the decision to be intentional about appreciating the many wonderful people and gifts in our lives. Tragedies such as the one in Newtown can serve to remind us of what is truly important in life and can position us to set our priorities straight.
In the coming days and weeks our staff, administration and board will be reviewing our school’s comprehensive security plan to see if there are areas where even greater measures of precaution can be taken. Any changes will be shared with students and families and will be fully integrated into our school policies. In the meantime, teachers will continue to be hyper-vigilant about safety and all school policies will be enforced to the fullest. (Although the school’s safety plan must remain secure and is only shared with staff, parents receive a version of this plan each year as part of the Parent Handbook, which is also available on our website (http://www.allsaintsdayschool.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/AS_Parent_Handbook_2012-13.pdf
, appendix B).
This has been a tough fall for our community. Beginning with the fire at Hoboken Charter School and our emergency evacuation on the first day of school, followed by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and now news of another horrific shooting at an elementary school; this year has been anything but normal. Ask any psychologist and you’ll find that this is exactly what our children need right now – a sense of normalcy. In fact, that is what the parents and students are attempting to regain in Newtown, even after experiencing such a tremendous tragedy. All children need to know that their parents and teachers are doing everything they can to keep them safe. Communicating a sense of confidence about the adults entrusted with your child’s safety is perhaps the greatest gift you can give your child this holiday season.
[For those who were unable to make Monday morning's workshop, click here for the powerpoint: Helping Children Following School Violence]
Thoughts? Questions? Ideas? I’d love to hear them! Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.