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Today's Family Magazine

Calming kids' fears of gun violence

By Nina Polien Light

Emily Ludwig of Shaker Heights generally shelters her son, Ian, from the news of mass shootings.  The 10-year-old tends to get anxious and have trouble sleeping when he sees upsetting images.

But when a gunman opened fire in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in October, leaving 11 people dead, Ludwig knew she had to address the incident.  Ian was sure to hear about it at the Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood, where he is a student.  Additionally, his grandmother is from Pittsburgh.

“I tried to focus on the idea that, unfortunately, there are people in the world who do bad things, but most people are kind,” Ludwig says.  “I told him there was a terrible shooting at this synagogue by a man who was not able to control his anger.  I told him it’s scary and sad and we need to think about these people.  I reminded him that Officer Mike is at school and tried to reassure (Ian) he’s safe at school and home.”

Ludwig also has two daughters—13-year-old Caitlin, who discussed the shooting in her social studies class, and 4-year-old Evie, whose preschool class now has a guard stationed outside the door.

Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Pulse Night Club in Orlando.  First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California.

It may seem like the world is becoming increasingly dangerous, but the truth is, the chance of our children finding themselves in an active-shooter situation remains remote.  And they need to know that.

“These things don’t happen every day,” says Kristen Eastman, PsyD, a child psychologist with Cleveland Clinic Children’s.  “You can say to a child, ‘Add up all the days you’ve gone to school in your whole life and the number of times (a school shooting) has happened.”

Citing information culled from the National Safety Council and National Center for Health Statistics, Business Insider’s Skye Gould and Dave Mosher report the odds of an American dying in a mass shooting are one in 11,125—making it significantly less likely than dying while walking (one in 611), from a fall (one in 122) or from drugs (1 in 72).

Still, it’s not easy to talk about these horrific events with our children.  Experts say the first step is to assess what kids know.  Preschoolers who are unaware of a shooting don’t need details.  But students in elementary or middle school who are confused about an incident—and may be hearing chatter about it from their classmates—deserve to know the truth.

“Correcting inaccurate information allows you to control the message,” Eastman says.  “You can filter the information as you see fit for your children while giving them a sense of what kids on the bus are talking about.  It gives them a sense of security.”

Don’t assume how teenagers feel in the aftermath of a violent event, adds Carolyn Ievers-Landis, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital.

“Some adolescents may prefer to not focus on these events whereas others may be very interested in them, and want to discuss them with an adult,” she says.  “The parent should be available for discussions and talk about them in a matter-of-fact manner while also expressing his or her own view and asking the child what he or she thinks.”

In the wake of recent mass shootings, some children may fear going to school, worship services or extracurricular activities, but sheltering at home and missing out on life is no way to live. That means we are tasked with guiding our kids through scary terrain.  How can we best stress the importance of lockdown drills and safety drills, “just in case,” without creating or adding to our youngsters’ fear and anxiety?  Experts suggest:
  • Emphasizing that specific violent events are far away from you neighborhood.
  • Giving children full attention at the time a question is raised, providing honest and age-appropriate answers, and relying on our gut instinct when deciding how much or how little information to share.
  • Turning off the television or radio news in the presence of very young children and, around older children, limiting the time we tune in to news broadcasts during violent attacks.  Seeing televised images of brutality on a loop adds to the perception these incidents are never-ending.
  • Validating our offspring’s concerns by admitting we get scared sometimes, too, but are continuing with our normal activities.
  • Involving children in devising a plan that makes them feels safe.  Would they be more comfortable attending church if we sat closer to the door?  For younger kids who don’t normally carry a cell phone, perhaps permitting them to take a family cell phone to their after-school scout meeting or ice skating lessons would provide a sense of security.
  • Assuring our children their schools have safety plans in place.  According to Katy McGrath, director of community relations at Kenston Local Schools, House Bill 178 mandates all schools conduct three safety (lockdown) drills in conjunction with law enforcement each academic year.  With help from the Bainbridge Police Department, Kenston, like many other school districts, teaches A.L.I.C.E. protocol to its staff and students (in an age-appropriate manner). A.L.I.C.E. stands for Alert, Lock, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.  The district also offers the training to parents and other residents.
  • Offering our kids a creative outlet to express their feelings.  Eastman says the teacher of her then third-grade daughter helped students make sense of the Sandy Hook shooting by encouraging them to decorate and sign replicas of snowflakes.  “Then she told them they were going to send the snowflakes to the kids in Connecticut, where a person made bad choices and some kids wouldn’t be able to be home with their families,” Eastman explains, adding the teacher provided context to the tragedy without using the words “murder” or “kill.”
  • Seeking mental health services, when warranted.  “If kids aren’t responding to this kind of problem-solving or parental support and are waking up weeks or months later with anxiety or are avoiding everyday activity, their anxiety might be outside the range of acceptable,” Dr. Eastman says.  “You might want to ask your pediatrician for help or a referral to a child psychologist.”