It’s a beautiful thing to watch—a child embracing a parent knowing that if they just hold on tight, they will be safe. We know this about children. They believe they will be safe if their parents are safe.
Now imagine this—a child lets go of that hug and says goodbye to a parent in the morning believing that they will be safe at school, and instead is shot and killed there, and the parent never gets to embrace that beloved child again. This young life is over, replaced by never-ending grief.
There is no promise of safety that can be made in the United States today—not after Uvalde, Texas; Parkland, Fla.; Newtown, Conn.… the list of horror and heartbreak goes on. Today, no parent can guarantee this safety, and no child can feel safe, but we must try.
Gun Violence in Schools on the Rise
Since the Columbine High School rampage in 1999, there have been shootings at 331 schools—42 of them in 2021, and 24 more so far this year. During this period, more than 300,000 children have been exposed to gun violence in their schools, which is by itself deeply traumatizing. Millions more across the country have had their sense of safety shaken to the core.
Students at Tucson High Magnet School
Source: Jeffrey J Snyder/Shutterstock
Safety and Learning
The connection between safety and learning is fundamental. Without a sense of safety and belonging, a child’s ability to focus, concentrate, persist, and even remember what has already been learned gets interrupted. There is a biological reason for that.
Stress and the Brain
When humans are under stress, when we feel unsafe, the hormone cortisol floods our bodies. In small doses, cortisol can be helpful. It produces that familiar feeling of fight, flight or freeze, and helps us prepare for an exam or a performance or get out of the way of a falling object. In large amounts, however, when stress is unrelenting and when it is unbuffered by the presence of a trusted adult, cortisol becomes toxic. It weakens our immune and health systems, disrupting the development of the brain’s limbic system which is key to attention, learning and the regulation of our emotions.
Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. The hormone oxytocin is also part of the human stress response, but it is more powerful at the level of the cell than cortisol. Oxytocin produces feelings of trust, love and safety, but that’s not all. It protects against the damage done by overwhelming stress, it heals, and it produces resilience to future stress.
Remember that children derive their sense of safety from the adults in their lives, especially when they are in very stressful situations. Oxytocin helps us understand that there is a biological basis for that feeling. This means that the most powerful tool adults have to manage stress and to help our young people manage stress is the human relationship. Relationships that are strong and trustful release oxytocin, and oxytocin can restore a child’s sense of safety and well-being.
8 Tips to Reassure Children
Here are eight tips for adults to reassure children in the aftermath of school shootings:
1. Initiate a conversation: Don’t wait for your kids to bring up shootings. Ask what your kids are feeling about them right now and listen carefully so you can respond to their concerns, misconceptions, and fears truthfully. Adjust your answers depending on the age of the child. Assure them that you will create ongoing opportunities to talk and connect; then do so often.
Conversations are key
2. Keep calm and keep it real: Young people read the faces and emotions of adults well. Before you talk to a child or teenager, prepare yourself so that you can be as calm, collected, confident, convincing and consistent as you can be. Most of all, be truthful and authentic.
3. Limit exposure to media: After the 9/11 attacks, we learned that repeated images of the hijacked airplanes hitting the twin towers had a re-traumatizing effect. Regulate children’s exposure to the frightening images and sounds available on all forms of media, especially those of children fleeing school buildings, and distraught and angry parents. Even small children who appear to be engrossed in play may catch glimpses and hear frightening sounds from nearby media that they may have difficulty processing.
4. Keep routines in place: Routines are reassuring to children, but don’t force them to go to school if they are terrified. If your child asks if this could happen at their school, you can tell them that while gun violence is not going away, school shootings are still rare and if possible include something that their school is doing to ensure their safety. Do let your child know that the person responsible for the shooting cannot hurt anyone ever again.
5. Keep an eye out: Notice if your child is having trouble eating or sleeping, is complaining of head and stomach aches, or is having difficulty concentrating. These could be signs of something more serious, like an emerging depression or post-traumatic stress syndrome. Young children may regress and cling; teens may be more defiant than usual. If symptoms of extreme stress persist after a few weeks, seek medical attention. Note: Children who were present at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, knew those directly affected; those who have experienced similar incidents will need more support in the days and weeks ahead.
A reassuring conversation
6. Talk about your own worries: Do say that you are worried about the shootings, but at the same time convey why you believe it will be OK. Tell your child that there are adults trying to make it harder for dangerous people to buy the guns used in the school shootings but that it won’t happen right away. This may be a time to review plans your family has for keeping safe in the event of any crisis.
7. Do something: Share information on how to help and support the students, teachers and families in Uvalde. Join other parents and community members to talk with school leaders about how they’re handling security now. Write and call your elected representatives to ask them what they are doing to make schools safe from mass shootings. Consider participating in the June 11 March for Our Lives organized by survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
8. Take care of yourself so you can care for others: Remember, you are one of the most important adults in the life of your child. Taking care of yourself, including exercising, eating and sleeping well, and using reflective practices, such as journaling and meditation, will help you care for others.
Did you notice that all eight tips revolve around one important biological fact? The human relationship has the power to relieve stress, promote resilience, and restore a young person’s sense of safety, which is fundamental to learning, This fact is what all adults should be guided by in their actions with young people today.