The back-to-school season is a time when parents and children are usually full of excitement as they prepare to return to early morning alarm clocks and late night work. But this year, parents may be facing an added stressor as they send kids to classrooms after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last May. The unthinkable act, which left 19 students and 2 teachers dead, filled an entire nation with renewed fear and confusion about how to keep children safe in schools.
Therapist Syd Miller says those feelings probably didn’t go away over the summer holidays. “Parents are terrified by the thought that when they drop their child off at school or put them on the school bus, it may be the last time they see their child alive,” she tells Yahoo Life. Miller says these feelings are real, raw and extremely difficult to process.
So how can parents manage both their own anxieties – and their children’s – as classrooms begin to reopen for a new school year?
Understand that separation anxiety is real
The devastation (and for some, the trauma) of the Uvalde shooting can heighten separation anxiety for parents. Tia Raimo, a mom from Simsbury, Conn., calls the Uvalde tragedy, “another harsh reminder that I can’t always be there to protect my children.”
“That’s a scary reality,” says Raimo. She works at a private school and says she and her three children, ages 8 to 14, will be going to three different schools this fall, which adds to her worry. Raimo prepares for the back-to-school season like he does every year, but he tells Yahoo Life that this year feels a little different. ‘I don’t want to chase them away,’ he says. I don’t feel the same sense of peace or security that I used to.”
Miller suggests that parents deal with separation anxiety and increased fear by talking about their feelings. “According to the Washington Post, the risk of a child being involved in a school shooting is only 1 in 614 million,” he says. “While any risk to a child is exaggerated, this is an extremely low number.”
Miller adds that because the thought of a school shooting is so horrific, it’s only natural that fear takes over. However, if parents focus on the real possibility and reassure themselves that their children are safe, then they can “reassure their children that they are safe and that their school is safe.”
The right kind of communication can be difficult
Parents may recognize the need to have open conversations about school safety and the events of Uvalde in particular, but they should be careful not to instill heightened fear in their children as they send them to school, Miller says.
But this can be a difficult line to draw. Kristjana Hillberg, a mom of three in Rapid City, S.Dak., says it’s hard to know what to say, so she keeps the focus on courage. “I want to teach my kids that you can be brave and terrified at the same time, and that you can talk and do tough things even though it’s scary,” she says.
Raimo offers her children a way out through prayer. “My goal is for us to get together every morning and pray together before we leave for school,” she says. “I hope this will give us all comfort and strength to get through our days.”
“The main message has to be that even though some bad things have happened that they’ve heard about, they’re safe, their siblings and their parents are safe, and everything’s going to be okay,” Miller adds.
However, parents may worry that this message is not entirely true. Recent history shows that the threat of school shootings is indeed real. So what’s a parent to do? How can they convey a message of safety to children without feeling like they’re lying?
“There’s an element of risk in everything we do, even just crossing the street,” says Miller. “We don’t want to unnecessarily frighten our children and cause them to become anxious or develop anxiety-related problems, so we tell our children to look both ways when crossing the street. But we don’t want to to be afraid to cross the road. It’s the same here.”
“Our kids know about shootings and schools have drills for things like they have fire drills. But we don’t want them to be afraid to go to school,” Miller adds, stressing the importance of having age-appropriate conversations. “As they get older, we can start to discuss things like this in more depth — the nuances of it all — but the basic message remains the same: You can comfortably and honestly tell them that while the thought is horrible, the risk is extremely minimal.”
Helping children take action
In the months since the Uvalde shooting, parents like Raimo have grown increasingly frustrated. “Why don’t we protect our schools better?” she asks. “Why is it that we can find money for so many other things, but the safety of our children doesn’t seem to be the first priority?”
At home, Raimo has taken extra steps to teach her children ALICE training, an acronym for “alert, lock down, inform, counter and evacuate” that equips students with options-based proactive strategies for an active shooter situation . “I show my kids how to open the windows to escape any emergency,” she says, “and tell them where to run and who to trust.”
Miller says it’s important to focus on the exciting parts of going back to the classroom. “It’s so important to participate in all the other traditional back-to-school activities so our kids feel like their lives are normal,” she shares. “Take them out to get their school supplies, fun stuff for their lockers, new running shoes or outfits. And in the meantime enjoy the rest of summer vacation, which never seems long enough.”
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