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How to Talk to Kids About School Lockdowns

There’s no denying that the concept of school lockdowns is about as scary for parents as it is for kids. No one likes to imagine the possibility that their child’s school will be the target of school violence. But, the sad reality is that it’s a possibility we must prepare for . . . just in case. And while the huge majority of our children will never experience a genuine attack at school, nearly all modern children will experience a drill that simulates this experience.

Kids crouching at schoolFirstly, it’s important to discuss lockdown drills with kids of all ages, even if they don’t necessarily express fear about them. Especially as children become tweens and teens, acknowledging vulnerable emotions like fear can become ever-so uncool. But, whether fear is acknowledged or underground, nearly all kids find comfort in their parents’ words and reassurance.

Considering that we all want to keep our kids physically and emotionally safe, here are a few tips to help guide lockdown conversations:

Validate Your Child’s Emotions

It is completely normal to feel afraid leading up to, during, and after a school lockdown. Maybe the most important action you can take is to validate your child’s fear, or whatever emotion your child is expressing (verbally or nonverbally). Let them know it’s okay and normal to feel what they’re feeling. We want to avoid phrases like, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” or “It’s okay; that will never actually happen.” Statements like these shut down emotional expression and make promises we can’t keep. Before we can effectively reassure or soothe any difficult emotion, the first step is to let our children know that their feelings are real, understandable, and perfectly normal. You can convey this by simply saying something like, “I know it’s scary to think about things like this, I’m scared too sometimes. Let’s talk about it.”

Emphasize Safety

Our brains are naturally wired to laser-focus on threats. After all, it’s how we survived during the times of cave dwelling and lion dodging. Thanks, brain! The downside is that this focus can often drive fear and anxiety beyond its rational limits, especially in children. Going through a simulated experience of hiding in a darkened room and wondering if a dangerous person is right outside has a pretty significant emotional imprint on the brain.

So how do we help kids accurately assess their level of threat? It will depend based on the age of your child. For younger children, you might emphasize the huge number of adults at their school whose job it is to keep them safe. Let them know that if a dangerous person came into the school, their teachers, principals, counselors, librarians, and others know what to do. The goal is to shift your child’s focus away from the threat, towards all the sources of safety that surround them. This includes emphasizing that because they’ve practiced, they now know how to keep themselves safe too!

For older kids and teens, numbers may be more effective. Although watching the news may skew our brains to believe these events are happening all the time, most criminologists emphasize that they are exceedingly rare. In fact, some estimate the odds of being involved in a school shooting are even less than the odds of being struck by lightning!

Get the Facts and Be Honest

Especially if your children are younger, it will be important to get the facts about these drills (or what triggered real lockdown situations) from your child’s school. What happened? How often will drills occur? What actions are taken during a drill? Often times, fear is based in misunderstanding and misinformation. Every parent with a young child has experience with children misinterpreting a situation! Use the facts you learn to help clear up misperceptions like, “No, hundreds of bad guys weren’t running through the halls today.”

Kids love facts and information. But, it’s important to tailor how much information is given based on your child’s age and level of emotional maturity. You know your child best. Keep in mind that sharing realistic information can be very reassuring to children, particularly if you convey it in a tone that expresses confidence in their safety.

Again, don’t make a promise you can’t keep. We don’t want our children to believe that dangerous situations are never possible. But, we do want them to feel confident that if a dangerous situation occurs, the adults in their lives, and they themselves, are well prepared to handle it.

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