Incidents of school violence are terrible and frightening, but fortunately they are rare. Although it might not seem that way, the rate of crime at U.S. schools that involve physical harm has been declining since the early 1990s.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fewer than 1% of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds or on the way to and from school. The vast majority of students will never experience violence at school or in college.
Still, it's natural for kids and teens to worry about whether something may happen to them. To help them deal with these fears, it's important to talk about these tragedies when they happen, and to know what your kids watch or hear about them. This helps put frightening information into context.
It's important for kids to feel like they can share their feelings, and know that their fears and anxieties are understandable.
Rather than waiting for your kids to approach you, consider starting the conversation. Ask what they understand about these incidents and how they feel about them.
Share your own feelings, too — during a tragedy, kids often look to adults for their reactions. It helps kids to know that they are not alone in feeling anxious. Knowing that their parents have similar feelings helps kids legitimize their own. At the same time, kids often need parents to help them feel safe.
Talk with your kids about what schools do to help protect their students. Many schools are taking extra precautions — some focus on keeping weapons out through random locker and bag checks, limiting entry and exit points at the school, and keeping the entryways under teacher supervision. Others use metal detectors.
Lessons on conflict resolution have been added to many schools' courses to help prevent troubled students from resorting to violence. Peer counseling and active peer programs help students learn to watch for signs that a fellow student might be becoming more troubled or violent.
Another thing that helps make schools safer is greater awareness of problems like bullying and discrimination. Many schools now have programs to fight these problems, and teachers and administrators know more about protecting students from violence.
Of course, you are not your child's only source of information about school shootings or other tragic events that receive media attention. Kids are likely to repeatedly see or hear news stories or graphic images on TV, radio, or online, and such reports can teach them to view the world as a confusing, threatening, or unfriendly place.
Unlike movies or entertainment programs, news is real. But depending on a child's age or maturity level, he or she may not yet understand the distinctions between fact and fantasy. By the time kids reach 7 or 8, however, what they watch on TV can seem all too real.
For some kids, the vividness of a sensational news story can be internalized and transformed into something that might happen to them. A child watching a news story about a school shooting might worry, "Could I be next? Could that happen to me?"
TV has the effect of shrinking the world and bringing it into our living rooms. By concentrating on violent stories, TV news can also promote a "mean-world" syndrome that can give kids a misrepresentation of what the world and society are actually like.
To calm fears about the news, parents should be prepared to deliver what psychologists call "calm, unequivocal, but limited information." This means delivering the truth, but in a way that fits the emotional level of your child. The key is to be truthful, but not go into more detail than your child is interested in or can handle.
Although it's true that some things can't be controlled, parents should still give kids the space to share their fears. Encourage them to talk openly about what scares them.
Older kids are less likely to accept an explanation at face value. Their budding skepticism about the news and how it's produced and sold might hide fears they have about the stories covered. If an older child is bothered about a story, help him or her cope with these fears. An adult's willingness to listen will send a powerful message.