Three 'Must-Dos' To Help Kids Cope With Violent Events

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Breaking news reveals that extremists – home-grown or international – have struck with violent precision.

It’s happened yet again – this time twice within a single weekend in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.

While there have sadly been many active-shooter events in the intervening years since 9/11, the news of these early August attacks brought me back in an instant to the day when the ongoing national nightmare was spawned.

By the time I picked up my then-seven-year-old son from school on September 11, 2001 he knew that planes had destroyed the Twin Towers. He had been worried about Grandma and Grandpa, who lived in New York. It astounded me how quickly he made the fearful connection between the attack and his grandparents’ safety…and that he lived with that fear until I arrived to pick him up.

Whether a terrorist strike is on the scale of 9/11, Sandy Hook, or the recent ones in Texas and Ohio, your children may be afraid, perhaps angry and naturally curious about its impact on their lives – especially now that school will soon be back in session.

Here’s one thing you can rely on: Your kids will be exposed to an uncontrollable media assault on multiple platforms, as well as information – and misinformation – from friends and schoolmates.

As concerned and hungry for information as we, ourselves, may be, our job as parents in the face of this type of crisis is threefold:

·      Control your kids’ environment

·      Share only age-appropriate information

·      Don’t answer questions they haven’t asked

Control your kids’ environment.

It’s impossible to control media entirely, but parents need to own the conversation. That starts with being sensitive to what and how much information about active shooter and other violent events your kids are exposed to.

As much as you can, shield your children – especially more vulnerable school-agers – from the media onslaught. Play music rather than news on the car radio. If the TV is on at home, play or stream movies or children’s programs to avoid “breaking news” updates.

Think beyond media. Remember… kids have elephant ears. Your child may look engrossed in a coloring book or a video game while you and your friend talk about the news, but their attraction to and curiosity about adult conversation will heighten their interest in what you’re saying.

Finally, gather as much info as you can from school administrators and teachers about what, if anything, they’ve officially communicated to the children in their charge. If there were an attack somewhere in the world – but it’s not getting much media coverage – I wouldn’t bring it up unless I know it was discussed at school.

One additional note on environments: Given the cultural acceptance of guns in the home for many people, it is completely appropriate to ask whether there are guns in the home prior to a playdate or sleepover. I coach clients to inquire about that simply so they can make an informed decision about their kids’ safety. Many gun owners understand the responsibility well and have gun safes and other preventative measures in place; but, it is your responsibility to ask.

Share only age-appropriate information.

Between lock-down and active-shooter drills at school – not to mention parental lectures about “stranger danger” and the sanctity of their bodies – modern kids are well aware of the potential for both violence and personal harm. Yet if an actual event occurs either at school, in the U.S. or globally, fear will likely overcome them… again, especially school-age children.

Reassurance is a parent’s #1 responsibility. But don’t be dishonest. If the recent attack was at a school like theirs, kids will likely ask “Am I safe at school?” You certainly cannot say, “I promise nothing will ever happen at school.” But you can reassure them that you have full confidence that Principal Jones, Safety Officer Sam and their teachers are doing everything possible to protect them.

As someone who is herself quite sensitive to visual imagery, it behooves us as parents to be exceptionally mindful about what our kids see – not only what they hear. They can’t ever unsee images of mangled and bloodied bodies, so especially guard against their exposure to graphic visuals.

Teens, of course, are capable of a much more in-depth conversation. With their near-constant presence on social media, teens likely will know many of the details of the attack and its consequences. They may even have opinions they want to share with you. Invite those conversations. Just make sure they’re not within earshot of younger siblings. For your part, be honest with your teen, but remain measured and mindful.

Don’t answer questions they haven’t asked.

Parents often presume kids know more than they do. We also tend to invest more meaning in what they say than what is they actually know or feel.

So check yourself. When your kids ask questions, reflect their question back to them so you’re absolutely confident you know what they’re asking. Find out what they know – and how they know it.

It’s possible they’ve only heard bits and pieces from schoolmates. Let the facts guide your decision-making about what – and what not – to say.

Above all, find out what their precise concerns are and address them rather than go over the details about the actual event. For school-aged kids in particular, too much information is easily overwhelming, scary and hard to process.

As the intensity of the coverage dies down, job #2 for parents is to stay vigilant about any lingering fears and concerns your kids may have. Are they clinging to you more than usual? Afraid to go to school or sleepovers? Wetting their bed? Watch for and attend to these signs of anxiety with reassurance and, if warranted, professional support.

While we cannot guarantee our kids will never be exposed to or involved in such attacks, as parents we have a critical role to play in helping them process violence. If you have any specific questions you’d like me to address, please email me at danahirtparenting@gmail.com

Back-to-School Checklist

No matter what summer looked like for your family, now is the time to for parents and kids of all ages to start setting expectations and creating routines for the school year.

Remember – transitions are hard! Once kids get into routines and patterns of behavior, they can be hard to disrupt, which is what makes advance preparation so important. Good news is that with a little practice, they’ll soon get the knack of being back in school! And so will you.

Below are some general tips for back-to-school prep and a few age-specific challenges worth noting.

When to talk “back-to-school”? Although parents think about back-to-school planning long before they talk to their kids about it, early August is the time to start sharing your back-to-school plans and expectations with the kids.

Caveat. You know your kids best. If they’re more vulnerable to transitions than their peers, you’ve probably already started to prep them in specific ways that meet their unique needs.

Have a family meeting. Share your ideas for morning and after-school routines to get everyone on the same page with the plan that works best for your family. For example, in my home, one rule was that before bedtime, backpacks had to contain all the requisite homework, permission slips, fees, gym clothes and miscellany for the following school day – and lunches were packed and in the fridge. It wasn’t flawless, but there were surprisingly few mishaps. When I noticed a slide into last minute scrambling, we had a meeting to recommit to the plan.

Shop early!  New clothes, shoes and/or uniform staples. Sports uniforms. School supplies. Lunch boxes. If you want the best selection and pricing, don’t wait to load up on school gear – especially if you have more than one to shop for. If you’re unsure of what specific supplies your kids will need, ask the school for a list. But be prepared for another run during first week of school once teachers weigh in on required items for their class.

Calendar it.  Seeing their schedules on paper (or digitally) makes it easier for kids to understand what the week looks like. Be sure to notate any regular tutoring sessions, music lessons and after-school sports. If you don’t want homework to fall through the cracks, use this strategy to help your kids internalize what needs to get done – and when.

Embrace the dress rehearsal!  If there is a new school, a new start time or a newly working parent in the picture, I highly recommend doing a trial transportation run, whether that’s walking them to the bus stop, riding the train together or driving to school at the appointed time. Even if there isn’t anything “new” about the school year, a dress rehearsal is still a good idea – especially if a caregiver is involved.

Here are a few ways to mitigate developmental challenges 

Little people. If there’s an opportunity to take your preschooler or kindergartener to school in advance (many schools offer visiting days) don’t miss it. The fewer the number of surprises on Day One, the better your little one will feel. Letting them meet their teacher, see their classroom and sayhi to a few classmates-to-be goes a long way toward reducing their anxiety and increasing their excitement.

Once school starts, be early for drop off – and on time for pick-up. Early arrival, especially at first, means there are fewer children to overwhelm them. And don’t be late! They need to trust you’re coming back. If a sitter or nanny is doing the pick-up, impress timeliness upon them as well. And just an FYI, don’t schedule play dates that first week. Your kiddies will likely have expended their psychic energy for the day as they adjust to the new school routine. Let them chill. 

Primary schoolers.  The big changes here are more structure during the school day and the onset of homework. This focus on more work and less play is a big transition for your kids, so be sure to be supportive as they adjust.

Many schools have “Move-up Day” towards the end of the school year, when kids get to see their new classrooms and meet their prospective teachers. If your child got to experience this, be sure to remind them of how excited they were last Spring.  

Middle schoolers.  There’s even more compartmentalization and structure in grades 6-8, so be sure they know in advance what to expect. Homeroom. Moving to a new classroom for each subject. More (and tougher) homework. These are the norm. Not to mention, there are a lot more personalities to adjust to.

This is also the stage to establish a regular place for homework, whether that’s in the kitchen (if they prefer your presence) or at a desk. Ease their anxiety by maintaining a fully stocked school supply cart close at hand. (TIP: Always keep several tri-fold poster boards in your home school supply closet. I guarantee you there will come a time when you will thank me!)

Be sure to explore in advance whether your middle school offers team sports – which is a fun and exciting addition for kids. Be sure to note try-out times, which often happen in advance of the school year.

High school. This is the big league for teens no matter what grade. To usher it in for incoming freshmen, consider hosting a BBQ for kids and their parents. It helps to put everyone on an equal footing. Plus your teen may click with someone in a more casual and less pressurized setting.

Typically, returning high schoolers have some work to complete over the summer. By now, that should be well in hand. If not, address it yesterday. Set a deadline of one week prior to the day school starts so that the last week before classes start is pure summer (for parents, too!). Encourage them to strive to submit their best work because this is their only chance to make a good first impression. 

Clothes? If there’s a dress code, make sure they know it. Otherwise, let (most of) their choices be. As I advise all parents of teens, pick your battles…because there will be plenty of them.

A super important note about teens with special needs. In the primary grades, it’s primarily the parent’s responsibility to partner with the school to ensure IEPs and 504s are communicated and adhered to. But once your teen with a learning difference hits high school, you need to support them in taking responsibility for their learning – and their learning profile. If not, they won’t know how to advocate for themselves in college.

If you’d like to discuss your back-to-school challenges, just email me.

Enjoy the last few weeks of summer vacation!