“Mommy, will they hurt students at MY school?”

This is a question we received this week from a parent after the tragic stabbings at a school district just outside of Pittsburgh. It is very similar to a question we heard in previous years and was heard so often in 2002 that we published a column on the subject.

Here are some thoughts and recommendations for today and the future:

Parent:  I have some concerns about my children’s physical and psychological safety in school, and so do they. My older child is having nightmares about guns, knives, and bombs. My younger child isn’t aware of the news enough to be worried, but I want her safe. Any recommendations?

The Utays: We hear two concerns here: 1) your older child’s anxieties, and 2) your own anxieties about possible dangers in school.

First, the bad news, schools are more dangerous than they use to be. Kidnappings, shootings, and the potential for students hurting other students, are all real. We hear about it on the news. We even have incidents close by. Not only are you realistic about potential dangers, you are not alone with your concerns. Most of the fifty million students, plus their parents and guardians, are wondering the same thing – how can they make sure their child is safe in school.

Professionals in education and school psychology recognize a far more debilitating aspect of this issue than real danger – the fear of danger. Why be concerned about children’s fears if those fears are for the most part unrealistic? The answer is that too many children are spending their mental and physical energy focused on potential dangers rather than learning the teacher’s lesson du jour. So, that means we need to listen to those fears and help the students cope.

While we are including some traditional safety tips on our website, we want to stress that students today are worried about students at their own school. What if an older student bullies them? What if a coach makes them feel uncomfortable? What if your child feels pressured on a date? What if they know a student that is bullied? What if they hear a student saying they wanted to “blow up the school?”

We can no longer gloss over any of these incidents. We need to report the information. We need to stand up and stop bullying in every form. We can no longer ignore bullying or abuse of any kind; both for our child and other children’s protection, including and maybe, especially, the child being bullied.

Make sure your child has a trusted adult at school that they will talk to and encourage them to report all concerns to you at home. Teach them to form their own opinions about someone not listen to what a “bully” might say. Today, schools have professionals trained to help both bullies and victims. Let’s use those wonderful resources.

So, first, implement what you learn from this column, common sense, and other experts you read or hear.

But, if anxious symptoms become significantly more than a child’s normal concern about their safety; such as, sleep becoming disturbed more than two nights in a row, suddenly not wanting to sleep in their own bed, two nights in a row, or not wanting to go to school more than three days in a row, it is time to get face-to-face professional help. Choose a mental health professional (counselor, social worker, psychotherapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist) who specializes in the specific area for which your child or adolescent needs the most help.

Teach your children at all ages to talk to you about people or places that scare them or make them feel uneasy. Teach them to trust their instincts. Listen and take them seriously. The goal is not to completely take away fear, but rather reduce or change it to be more manageable, thus helping them to realistically and safely prepare today for success tomorrow.

Safety Tips for Younger Children

All children from age four or even younger should know their home telephone numbers including area codes. Also, as soon as they can learn it, teach your young children your cell phone number, if you have one. Children as young as three years old, and sometimes younger, should know how to “dial” 911 for emergencies. Verbal skills do not have to be well developed for a 911 call to be helpful. Even without saying anything, police will be dispatched.

Plan the route carefully either to school or the bus. Choose the way with the least crossings. Make certain they know how to cross. Children should never veer off the planned route. Make certain they know to stay away from parks, vacant lots, fields, and other places where there are not many people around.

Make certain your children obey all the rules when they are walking, biking, or riding the bus. Make certain they know to be extra careful in rain, fog, or snow. Set them up to walk to and from the bus or school with others. Teach them to call you if their walking partner is not there. When car-pooling, drop off children as close to the school or bus as possible and stay and watch until they are inside.

You know to teach your children never to talk to or accept candy from a stranger, and today you have to go one step further. As odd as it sounds, teach your children not to help a stranger. Even a stranger in a police officer’s uniform is suspect. So teach to be cautious, to think first, to not take any chances.

So, first, implement these tips, common sense, and other experts you read or listen to. But, if anxious symptoms become significantly more than a child’s normal concern about their safety such as, sleep becoming disturbed more than two nights in a row, suddenly not wanting to sleep in their own bed two nights in a row, or not wanting to go to school more than five days in a row, it is time to get face-to-face professional help. Choose a mental health professional (counselor, social worker, psychotherapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist) who specializes in the specific area for which your child or adolescent needs the most help.

Teach your children at all ages to talk to you about people or places that scare them or make them feel uneasy. Teach them to trust their instincts. Listen and take them seriously. The goal is not to completely take away fear but rather reduce or change it to be more manageable, thus helping them to realistically and safely prepare today for success tomorrow.

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