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Mendo Lake Family Life

Are Your Kids Scared to Go to School? They’re Not Alone

Family Life talks to psychotherapist Joanne Frederick, PhD, about how to broach the topic of school violence with kids. Frederick has more than 25 years of experience in the field of counseling psychology and is the author of the book Copeology

Family Life: How should parents talk to children about violence in schools? How do they help kids feel safe?

Joanne Frederick: So the first thing is to ask kids if they are aware of the violence that is going on in schools. Have them talk about it from their perspective. There is violence that is in the news, like mass shootings, but kids also see and experience bullying. They see and experience racism, unfairness. They see and experience low self-esteem, low confidence. We should just listen to kids, without interrupting them or making them feel better. We should just hear what their concerns are. 

The second thing is safety. How do they stay safe? We do have to ask our kids: “If someone walks into school with a gun or knife or [other weapon], what do you do?” Number one, [tell them] to try to follow the instructions of the adults in the room. If they have to run, and they are able to, they should do that; if they cannot run, hide. If they can’t run or hide, they have to play dead. We have to have these conversations and allow them to talk about what they know. With other violence, such as fights, for example, what do we want our children to do? We want them to walk away and get help from an adult. And even before that we want our children to be able to express themselves in words before they get violent, or they witness someone being violent. 

FL: What if children are afraid to return to school?

JF: We have to walk them through their fears. [Talk about] a safety plan and an emergency plan. Sometimes children want a day off because they are afraid or they need a break. In the times we are living in, I think that it’s okay. I call that a mental health day. And it’s okay if a parent or caregiver allows them to stay home. But have a plan. If they are staying home, what are they going to do? “No, you are not on video games all day, but you can rest; you can take a walk, go to the park. Put the phone aside and really rest your mind.” 

FL: How do parents help kids who are upset by what they see in the news?

JF: Be mindful of how much news you are blasting out around them. If you have to watch the news, monitor it. Watch it early in the morning or late at night, when the kids aren’t around. Because the more kids hear the same things over and over, the more scared they get. So get your daily dose [of news], and then move on. That’s number one. Number two: If kids are hearing things on the news or through social media, talk to them about it. “Hey, did you hear about ___? What do you know about it? What are your thoughts on it?” You may be surprised to see that [what they have seen or heard] hurts these kids so much that they can’t even express themselves. Or they say, “This is horrible.” Then ask them, “How can I help you?” Some of them might say, “I don’t want to talk about it. Stop asking me,” or “I don’t know how you can help me.” I think we need to watch children’s behaviors [in terms of] what thy say and what they don’t say as they are moving on from a violent event. Sometimes they may not react immediately but they will a week or two later. We need to have an open door for them to come and talk to us. And then if it gets to a point where the parent really doesn’t know what to do, I would suggest consulting with a mental health professional. 

Learn more about Dr. Joanne Frederick’s work at