“What do I do if someone points a gun at me?” my 12-year-old asked.
His father and I froze. We’d been watching the news and our son, peering in through the kitchen, had seen video of an armed man shooting another man after an argument in a convenience store parking lot.
My son often stops by our local 7-Eleven on the way home from school to get a snack. He also used to play soccer near where Rep. Steve Scalise, a bodyguard and other congressional ballplayers took some bullets from a lone and crazed gunman while practicing for a charity game last year. And at my son’s middle school, the on-site security guard accidentally discharged his loaded gun, sending a bullet into a classroom. (No one was harmed, fortunately, but still.) And with school shootings repeatedly in the news, his heartbreaking question isn’t unreasonable.
But we weren’t sure what to tell him. What rules apply to young kids in an active shooter situation? How do we help kids feel safe in an increasingly violent world?
Even though it’s uncomfortable and we fear making our kids paranoid, we have to talk about this, according to the counselors, experts and psychologists I asked. We don’t have a choice.
“We’re willing to talk about what to do in earthquakes or other natural disasters and have conversations about sex education and drugs,” says Peter Berlin, a criminal lawyer in Los Angeles who specializes in firearms and personal security. “We need to talk about what to do in an active shooter situation. This reality isn’t going to go away.”
But what do we say?
First, instill them with confidence that they can handle the situation. Make sure they know how to follow the protocol of the school or de-escalate a situation by complying with requests. “Let them know that although it is very unlikely something will happen, and if and when they have an issue, they are perfectly capable of managing it,” says Carlissa Hughes, psychologist at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill. “Even something as simple as making sure they have their phone unlocked and ready to dial 911 or a parent might be enough to ease the anxiety of doing normal things,” she says. “Some kids like to actually be on the phone when they run an errand; it helps them stay calm. That’s part of the reason why 911 operators stay on with the caller.”
What is the best protocol in an active shooter situation? “If the individual is threatening people with the gun, the best advice is to run or hide, depending on which seems most likely to keep you safe. In rare instances and with no other option, fighting might be the next best recourse,” says Nancy Zarse, a professor in the forensic psychology program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and an expert of violence risk assessment, who consults with the FBI and other law enforcement and legal agencies.
After reviewing physical drills, help your child think through statistics — the odds are really in his favor. This can be very useful for some people to modulate anxiety, Hughes says. “Find odds of the crisis happening and cite them. For example, we are about 40 percent more likely to be killed by lightning than by an active shooter.”
It’s also worth reminding children (and adults) that — by definition — the news is composed of stories that are out of the ordinary, not stories about what happens every day. If the stories were ordinary, it wouldn’t be news.
Arming your child with facts and a plan is empowering and perhaps the best antidote to calm fears about school violence. We can also help our children know that they aren’t too young to assist by being observant and aware of their surroundings at all times.
In the vast majority of cases, someone had a clue about a violent event before it started, Zarse says. Signs to look for include: threats of violence, entrenched grievances, a sense that the individual is intent on using violence, an unusual interest in or justification for violence as a legitimate response to grievances, suspicious inquiries and gathering items for the violent act.
“If they see something that isn’t right — a weapon, a lonely child, an angry and bitter teen, a website or Instagram post, anything that doesn’t seem right — tell someone who can help, a parent, teacher, guidance counselor or other community helper,” says Catherine Franssen, a neurobiologist and director of neurostudies at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., who has worked with adults and children suffering from PTSD. “In order to genuinely soothe gun and school-shooting anxiety, we need to offer our children methods of gaining control and responsibility and understanding,”
And the conversation needs to be an ongoing one. While certainly important to address fears following a specific incident, it’s also likely that a generalized anxiety may arise as a result of an accumulation of stories, social media, and hearsay. What do you do?
Across the board, counselors agree that it’s important to validate your child’s anxiety about gun violence. “Let them know that what they are feeling is normal and okay,” says Gene Cash, president-elect of Trainers of School Psychologists and Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) at Nova Southeastern University. “Tell them, ‘Of course, you feel worried and nervous about that. Lots of people do.’”
Parents need to communicate to our kids that we are available to listen non-judgmentally and are capable of supporting them, whatever their emotional reaction. “Kids need to be given permission to feel and to talk,” says Elizabeth Newlin, vice chair for child and adolescent psychiatry at McGovern Medical School at UT Health in Houston. “Whether this was an incident in your community or on the news, young people need validation from familiar, supportive, and reliable adults, and from one another.”
But how do you begin? With the kid.
“It’s best to allow the child to ask questions and let those questions guide the conversation. Children will often want to revisit the topic multiple times, so keeping an open door to communication is key,” says Julie Kaplow, director of the Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, who has been involved with the Santa Fe community following the shooting at the local high school.
Kaplow says that caregivers can also help to distinguish “adult worries” such as keeping children safe, protecting loved ones from gun violence and learning more about government policies from “kid worries” like keeping up grades, being a good friend, and cleaning the bedroom. This gives them permission to release some of the “adult worries” they may be carrying with them.
And you may not need to do more than listen. “For many children, just listening, empathizing, and validating is enough, and it is not always necessary to provide specific advice about how to manage the feelings,” says Chad M. Sylvester, Washington University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry.
But what if a shooting is the hot topic in your community and your kid isn’t talking? Certain signs could be red flags that you need to initiate the conversation, or find someone who can help.
Look for these signs, Kaplow says: intense fears about being separated from the primary caregiver; frequent nightmares and sleeping issues; angry outbursts; risky behaviors such as alcohol or drug use, reckless driving, talk of suicide or self harm; inability to carry out normal tasks.
Kids can also regress during times of terror, behaving as they did when they were much younger, says Carole Lieberman, psychiatrist and author of “Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror.”
“Don’t become critical, impatient or angry with them,” Lieberman says. “Reassure them that it is a normal and temporary reaction to stress. These are signs that they need more comfort from you.”
It’s also highly possible that the source of anxiety is coming from a source closer to home — you.
“Like the common cold, anxiety is contagious,” Newlin says. “If a parent seems overwhelmed themselves this can equate to the parent being unavailable in a child’s mind, particularly for a more sensitive or vulnerable child.”
If you’re freaking out — and you tend to be vocal or emotive — call a friend, support group, or a professional. “As Gandhi said, ‘Our actions speak so loudly that our children cannot hear our words!’ ” Cash says.
And if we’re using our words wisely, helping to protect our most precious cargo, we can’t say them enough.