Advice columnist

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I have a 5-year-old daughter in kindergarten, and I am just a wreck every time I see news about a school shooting. I know there are daily risks in life (getting in a car, etc.) but I am having a really hard time with the possibility that something fatal could happen to her at school. We live in a state where guns are prevalent and concealed carry is legal.

I'd love to hear thoughts on how to deal with this anxiety (not looking to start a debate on gun control — just trying to play the hand I'm dealt).

— A Wreck

A Wreck: Throw facts at your anxiety, because it is in fact irrational. Something fatal can happen to all of us anywhere — and does, eventually — but the likelihood of any U.S. child dying by any cause is very low. When something bad does happen, it is typically accidental; you brush past the “daily risks” but the numbers are much grimmer for that car trip than for any school day. School shootings are more terrifying because they’re outside our daily risk trade-offs — such as, do we stick only to places we can walk, or accept the risk inherent in vehicle travel? — just as stranger abduction terrifies so many parents into taking outsize measures to supervise their kids, when the risk is much higher in the mundane and in people we know.

The Gift of Fear” and “Protecting the Gift” by Gavin de Becker can help you assess risk based on fact vs. emotion.


(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)

This is not to say school shootings should be treated as normal or acceptable; they’re far from it. I addressed only the risk-assessment piece; another piece is to challenge the “hand I’m dealt.” Concrete, informed actions can be the best anxiety treatment there is.

Re: School Shootings: Try to keep your anxiety level on this low and not give it to your daughter — difficult, I know. If you need to talk to her about it, then be matter-of-fact and underscore that this is very, very, very unlikely to happen to her.

I worry how much we are traumatizing kids with active-shooter drills, etc. Cars are hugely dangerous, and often we don't have the control we think we have because of other drivers — we're just used to danger.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Right. Though even with cars, we’re significantly safer now, because of careful analysis of risks and pressure to minimize them.

Here’s the thing, and I’m glad you steered the conversation to it. If recent reports are accurate, young people are experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression, with smartphone overuse involved as both cause and effect, to the point where (budget-slashed) school counseling offices are overrun. The risk in these mental health conditions is so much more immediate than the risk of a shooter.

Then there are the risks that come with overprotection fueled by parental anxiety. Kids need to get out in the world, on their own, in age-appropriate ways. Otherwise they get launched in the greater world as chronological adults who are functionally still children, lacking in life skills.

So these are more reasons for parents to force themselves to gain and live by a factual understanding of risk — and factual motivation to improve the conditions we’re in.

Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at wapo.st/haxpost.