After an especially long winter break from school, my children will happily be returning to friends and teachers and busy days full of activities. The cabin fever has set in for two siblings, close in age, who've spent oodles of extra time together lately. I've found myself in recent days almost commenting wryly on social media channels how elated I'll be that they're returning. Then I catch myself, because my gut tells me this won't be the same, at least not for any of us parents, after the Sandy Hook shooting massacre. While the Connecticut parents have suffered unbearable loss, I don't want to make light of this back-to-school time.
I couldn't bring myself to even allow my children to know there had been a tragedy at another elementary school. In the case of other events like a natural disaster, they might have heard that something bad happened to some other children; they might have prayed for them or learned of other ways they could help. But this one was different. The potential for my kids to develop anxiety over simply attending school seemed too great. In the days following the shootings, we were especially careful to keep the television turned off. Yes, my gut tells me, this one is too big to talk about.
As a parent and writer searching for answers, I turned to the American Academy of Pediatrics to see what the medical experts had to say. Although they did not respond to my specific media request for this post, I found their article "Responding to Children's Emotional Needs During Times of Crisis" somewhat helpful. I found this tip in their article relevant, "Start by asking what your child has already heard about the events and what understanding he or she has reached." The article has several useful tips to help discuss tragedies with a child. It also cautions to seek professional medical help if you have concerns about your child's behavior. This article seems to assume that the tragedy is one your child would already be aware of. I'm still not convinced that very young children need to know about Sandy Hook. Of course the AAP's President Thomas K. McInerny has taken a stand to curb some gun sales, improve mental health resources, and reduce our children's exposure to violence, as outlined in his recent letter to President Obama. While the gun safety issue will and should be debated, that's not the immediate focus of my concern as a parent. My immediate concern is my children having a healthy sense that school is generally a safe place for them to be.
I asked Stress Free Kids founder and child stress expert Lori Lite what we could do to prepare our young children for the return to school, whether they know about the shootings or not. She affirmed the importance of the safety and security message. Lite said, "One coping skill parents can expose children to is positive language or positive statements. An excellent affirming statement is, 'I am surrounded by good people and I am safe.' Parents can also pay attention to their own statements, putting extra emphasis on saying positive things about going back to school, their teachers, and the safety of their school. Instead of pointing out the 'bad' things that happen, parents can focus on all the positive things good, caring people are doing. Positive statements or affirmations can be created for each child and change to support the child's concerns or fears."
In my urge to overprotect, I'm not naive enough to think I'll never have to discuss terrible things with my children. I'll be listening carefully in the next few days to hear what they're picking up from classmates. I already teach my kids some personal safety skills, and I realize their school already conducts various emergency drills. This is certainly an appropriate time for all of us as parents to step up and ask how we can support our local principals and teachers in doing their amazing work. No matter how grave our concerns, I pray for the good sense to keep a healthy perspective about school safety, for our children's sake. As Lite suggests, every child should be able to say, "I am safe."