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School shootings: How parents can cope with their own fears and anxieties

If increased school security and active shooter drills have you on edge, mental health experts have this advice to help you cope.
Image: Elementary school boy walks with dad to class
35 percent of parents fear for child's safety at school, up from 24 percent in 2017, according to a new Gallup poll. fstop123 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Last February, Lynn R. Zakeri, a licensed clinical social worker, checked her phone during a break between clients as she normally does. She had a string of text messages from her son, then a freshman in high school, reading: “I’m ok. We are evacuating. I love you.”

Her son’s school was on lockdown, and there were no immediate answers as to why. Zakeri soon learned that there had been a bomb threat (fortunately a false one), but at the time, parents rushing to the school assumed an active shooter was involved. The Parkland shooting had happened just a week prior.

“Everything turned out fine, but for a second, I was ‘that mom’ and he was ‘that kid’ who experienced that real fear,” says Zakeri. “I still get choked up when I read [those texts]. I had missed a bunch of them [while in session]. As a parent, imagine seeing this and not being caught up?”

Many parents are likely imagining this and other terrifying scenarios pertaining to their kids’ safety at school, a new poll by Gallup suggests. The research found that 35 percent of parents fear for child's safety at school, up from 24 percent in 2017, and 20 percent of parents noted that their child has expressed fears. School shootings, along with bullying, physical and/or sexual harassment is a dominant subject of their worries.

Start by putting things into perspective

There’s legitimate reasoning behind these concerns, as school shootings were a monthly occurrence during the first part of the 2018 school year.

How do you as a parent cope with the fear that your child’s school could be next?

Consider the fact that despite the rise of deadly incidents involving guns at schools, statistically, these tragedies are rare. That may be hard to reckon with when your own child is being subjected to active shooter drills on campus, and the increasingly regular tragedies that do occur; still, the odds of your child being a victim of a shooting at their school are very, very small.

“I would underscore that even though these types of shootings are happening they are still very rare occurrences,” says Daniel Webster, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “Children are safer in school than perhaps any other setting as it relates to fatal violence, but the nature of these shootings, which are unpredictable and highly publicized, generate understandable fears.”

Think of all the safe school days your child enjoys

Dr. Jerry Bubrick, senior clinical psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute encourages anxious parents to think of the chances of a school shooting much like you think of the chances of a plane crash. It could happen. It does happen. But your chances of being involved in one are so incredibly slim.

“Any time a plane crashes, we hear about it heavily, but we don’t hear about all the planes that are just fine,” says Dr. Bubrick. “The same applies to the horribly tragic school shootings. On that same day hundreds of thousands of schools functioned safely. That’s powerful and needs to be taken into perspective.”

Talk positively to yourself, as you would to a friend you trust

One of the roots of anxiety, Bubrick notes, is the fear of the unknown. We frantically ask ourselves, “What if?” We may instead try to focus on trusting the knowledge we do have and cultivating confidence that, in any scenario, we will get through it.

“I read a quote recently along the lines of, ‘People are happier when they talk well of themselves to themselves,” says Bubrick. “That resonates a lot for me working with anxious people. We tend to give really good advice to others when they’re worried. We say something like, ‘you’re loving and resourceful and you will figure this out because you’re strong.’ To ourselves, we tend to say things like, ‘I’m a worried wreck. I can’t do this.’ I think we need to be as confident in our own abilities to handle absolutely anything. Walking around thinking ‘what if’ and worried about failing will only have a negative impact on your mood, self-esteem, and possibly be [an outlook mirrored] by your kids, who like sponges, absorb your coping styles.”

Communicating with your kids helps zap your (and their) anxiety

Part of clearing up our anxiety in this cases lies in openly communicating with our kids, and keeping a kind of poker face about our own fears when doing so.

“I talk often with parents about these conversations not being lectures,” says Bubrick. “That means not leading them down a path of worry. So instead of saying, ‘Are you scared of a school shooting?’ say, ‘Hey what do you think of what is happening at school?’ Ask a question, listen to the response, validate [any concerns] by saying they’re understandable. Our job as parents when kids are little is to fix and protect. We put things on drawers so they don't hurt themselves, etc. But as they get older we become more like consultants. Our job becomes to help them find solutions to themselves, and this starts around third grade. If something is [worrying] them, ask, ‘What are some things you can do?’ Get them to give ideas and then give your input. Gameplay together about what the plan is.”

Talk it out with other adults

You may want to keep your anxieties guarded from your kids so as to not trouble them, but that doesn’t mean you should keep your feelings locked up — not by a stretch.

“Vent to your spouse or to your friends, to anyone you trust,” says Dr. Laura Dabney, a psychologist specializing in relationships. “Letting emotions out is how you make them dissipate. The key is to not let your anxiety come between you and the child. If you think your emotions are beyond the norm, going on for beyond a few months, talk to [a mental health professional] about it further.”

Dr. Dabney also encourages parents to let kids vent, too, and to not try to distract them into feeling better.

“Children can get very specific when discussing their fears, [as in saying] ‘I am afraid of getting blood splattered on me.’ You want that. That’s them getting it out of their head and off their chest. If they cry, let them cry until they're done. Don't interrupt with, ‘Let's go do something fun.’ Just be supportive and mentally pat yourself on the back because their emoting will help get them through.”

Focus on what makes you feel calm

Simple acts of self-care can be of great help, too.

“I recommend people think about what has helped them in the past and double down on that,” says Dr. Dabney. “If you are helped by meditating alone a couple days a week, do it every day with a group as that can feel more supportive. If information is soothing to you, go to the school’s administration office and talk to them about their plan and how they’re prepared for [gun violence]. Do what you do to self-soothe and don’t be shy to go the extra mile.”

You’re doing the best you can. Believe it.

And what about Zakeri, the therapist who faced the horrific scare that her son was in danger at school? Did she just go back to normal? Yes, she did — and gladly.

“I spend my life and my career teaching that ‘what if’ questions are anxiety-driven and not productive,” Zakeri says. “There are things I have control over, and there are things that I do the best I can, and with our busy lives with work, school and sports, believing I am doing the best I can keeps me going a whole lot more than ‘what if the worst happens?’ I do my part as a parent and I trust the school is doing their part in the follow up. I continue to trust. [My son and I] talk about how to evacuate, we talk about ‘what to do if’, but we talk about it with the confidence that he will be safe.”

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