Fear is not an unfamiliar emotion for most children. They feel fear of the dark, the fear of monsters, the fear of heights or of certain animals… there are endless things, both real and make-believe, that can make kids feel deeply fearful. An especially real and newer fear for kids is the fear of threats to their safety, particularly in schools.
As the beginning of the school year approaches, the weight of gun violence and school safety looms large in the minds and hearts of many children and their families. The loss and grief that we have collectively experienced as a result of recent gun-related tragedies is real and heavy and may make returning to school feel not like something to celebrate, but something to fear.
As a school-based social worker, I am acutely aware of this heaviness and fear, both personally and professionally. For parents and other adults who work closely with children, it can feel difficult to comfort children who are afraid when the adults themselves feel afraid too. I want to offer a few practical ideas for how to talk to your children about the transition back to school as it relates specifically to this issue:
- Normalize and validate: This is one the easiest and most simple ways to help children with the feelings they are having. If child expresses fear to you, assure them that they are not alone nor unjustified in feeling that way. School shootings are traumatic and scary, not just for the students in the buildings where they occur. It’s important that the adults acknowledge that without dismissing children’s feelings. This acknowledgement helps children to know that they aren’t alone in feeling the way they do and normalizes their experience. Even if a child that you have a relationship with has not expressed fear or anguish related to this issue, I would encourage parents and other adults to open up conversation about this topic. Ask if they have any questions or feelings related to school safety. Even if they say they don’t have any thoughts or feelings, encourage them to bring it up if anything arises for them at a later time. It’s important that children know that this is not a taboo topic so that they feel empowered to bring it up whenever they need to.
- Assure your child of their safety: School shootings are tragic and devastating, but the occurrence of one does not mean that the safety of all children at every school is immediately threatened. It might be helpful to talk through the procedures that a child’s particular school has in place to protect them and explain to them how those systems are designed to keep them safe even if something happens. Assure them that even though tragedies have taken place, there are still adults working hard to keep them safe when they do eventually return to school.
- Help them build connections with other safe adults: If you know a child who is feeling anxious or afraid about returning to school, connecting them with a social worker or counselor early on in the year is a great way to create built-in support for them. That way, they will know that there is an adult available to them during the school day who can help them work through those heavy emotions. The same goes for youth ministry—if you know your child is anxious about being in large gatherings, looping in the children’s or youth minister at your church creates more support for your child in that setting. Youth pastors, make sure your students know that you are a safe person for them to talk about this issue, in the contexts of both school and youth group events.
And of course, adults can offer support to kids through Biblical wisdom. If and when a child brings up concerns, directing them to scriptural truths can offer them comfort and confidence.
When Jesus was on earth, he too witnessed and was highly attuned to the anxiety of the people around him and sought to validate those feelings when they came up. We read Jesus tell his disciples in John 16:33, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Jesus knew then and still knows now that there are many things in this world that cause us to feel afraid. He also knows that there will continue to be hardship and tragedy that sow more fear in us.
But the Good News is that when Jesus died on the cross, he conquered death. Therefore, we get to live with the knowledge that death does not have the final word; the fear we feel is still real and valid, but we are no longer controlled by it. We as adults have the opportunity to share with the children in our lives that through Jesus’ death, we know that there will eventually come a day when we don’t have to fear anything. We will be safe with Jesus for eternity.