In the aftermath of gun violence in schools in the last decade, many parents are asking “How do I help my child feel safe?” or “How do I reassure myself that my child is safe?”
As parents, it is important to acknowledge and gain a healthy perspective of our own fears of safety for our children. With modern news media’s ability to instantly and repetitively report tragic events involving children, our own perceptions of levels of threat can be distorted. After all, our children are precious to us, and we want to protect them. Each time we hear, see or read about a single violent crime in the news, our brain interprets this as increasing threat. We can begin to believe that we are living in an unsafe environment, even if the violence occurred many hundreds or thousands of miles away from where we live.
The reality is that we live in the safest period of time in our history with violence against children by strangers at an all-time low. The U.S. Department of Justice found that the rate of violent victimization for children between 1993 and 2010 had declined 81 percent from previously studied periods. In 2014, a National Crime Victim survey found 1.1 percent of children experienced violent victimization by strangers. While none of us want any child to experience violence, these are truly small numbers of children harmed. It is important to keep this in perspective as our fear is easily transmitted to our children in harmful ways. When parents are afraid, children are more afraid. This fear can, and does, interfere with the social-emotional development needed for academic and social success throughout life.
When your talk to your children about safety or their worries about safety, follow these simple guidelines:
- Know what your school’s emergency procedures (weather, fire, intruder) are for your own reassurance so you can communicate about them confidently to your child.
- Practice safety plans at school and home.
- Teach your child to trust his or her instincts. If they feel afraid or think something is not right, they should find a trusted adult for help.
- Limit your child’s exposure to violence on TV and in the news.
- When violence is in the news, ask what your child knows or has heard. Correct misperceptions, reassure safety and review safety plans, if necessary.
- Answer children’s questions honestly. Be calm and matter of fact, giving them only necessary information. Younger children only need simple explanations, whereas older children or teens may want more discussion.
- It is important not to promise your child that violence will never occur. Children know that bad things happen. Making promises about things we can’t control compromises trust and can ultimately increase your child’s anxiety.
The National Crime Prevention Council has resources for parents seeking additional information on how to teach children safety skills.
If your child is feeling unsafe because of events in their school, community or in the news, and following these guidelines does not help you or your child feel more secure, professional help may be needed. Contacting your pediatrician or mental health provider can support you and your child in restoring a sense of safety.