This threat struck a chord in us because, as parents, our goal is to keep our children safe. Today, their safety was threatened and now we have to figure out how to redo what was undone – their sense of safety and security in their home-away-from home. As a friend of mine posted on Facebook, “How can I explain this to my kids when I can’t even explain it to myself?”
Fortunately, everyone is OK and unharmed physically. Some of these children will be too young to know what happened today and tomorrow is a brand new day that will be looked to with the same excitement as most days. Other kids will have questions, and still other, older children will have even more questions. I hope this list of tips will help you in processing this with your children going forward.
- Children are resilient: they bounce back quickly with structure, support from family, friends, and community. Children may want to stay home again from school tomorrow because they are afraid. As parents, our gut feeling may also be to keep them home because we, too, are afraid. The best thing to do is to send them to school. This will show them that you trust the school and the school’s security protocols. This will allow them to return to a normal routine and distract them from their anxious thoughts that will cause their worries and fears to grow.
- Be mindful of their age, developmental stage, and temperament. This will help to guide you about what information they need to know and what they don’t:
- Younger kids may be OK with “the JCC is open today.”
- Older kids may see and read higher-level conversations and opinions on social media that will require further dialog. If school has sent information about safety precautions, take time to review it with them.
- An easy-going child may only need to hear “The JCC was evacuated today because of a bomb threat. It was checked out and it’s all clear now, so it will be open tomorrow.”
- An anxious child may have a lot of questions – “How do they know that there was no bomb? Did they search everywhere? Did they search every possible place that a bomb could be? Why would someone do that?”
- Social learning: Remember that our children model their behavior from their parents, so it is important to stay calm and stick to normal routines. If they notice worry or sadness from you, they will feel worried as well; however, if you stay calm, they will feel safe. If you change the normal routine, they will notice and wonder why things are changing.
- Talk to them: Take time before responding to questions to think about what is age appropriate—keep information simple and general. Do not provide information that will increase fear. For children who were not present during the evacuation today, but will be participating in activities at the JCC later this week, know that they will hear things, so it is best to talk with them about it ahead of time (again, remember to keep the information age appropriate). Let your children be your guides about how much they want to know. Answer their questions to the extent that you are able and comfortable and defer to others if they need. For those who were present today, allow them to talk about what happened and let them direct the conversation.
- Validate feelings: Everyone will experience this differently and all emotions are accepted. Listen to your children, allow them to express themselves. It is unhelpful to say “Don’t worry” or “It’s going to be OK”. Instead, say, “It’s OK to feel worried. You went through something that would make many people feel scared.” Or “When I found out, my heart started beating faster, too.” If you’ve been through a similar experience, share that with them. This can also be an opportunity to model coping strategies.
- Reassurance: While children should be allowed to feel scared, sad, or angry, reassure them that the community is working with local law enforcement and that everyone has their safety in mind. Reassure them the JCC will only re-open when it is clear of threat to safety for everyone. Always keep in mind their age when considering how much to share.
- Adjustment: It is normal to experience these feelings and to re-experience the event in the days and weeks following it. If worries and fears are interfering with school performance, social activities and daily functioning, seek professional help and support from a school counsellor or mental health professional.
Dr. Sandy Sondell is the co-owner of Psychology Consultation Specialists, PLLC, in Plymouth. She specializes in comprehensive cognitive, neuropsychological, and social-emotional evaluations to address neurobehavioral concerns, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), giftedness, learning disabilities, and other emotional and behavioral difficulties.