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Your kids are likely nervous about school shootings — here's how to talk to them about it

With 160 school shootings across 38 states in the past three years (according to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety), kids’ worries about guns in the classroom seem not only understandable but warranted. This terror is fueled by news stories like the recent 17-person massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and heightened by real-life lockdown drills in schools.

These active-shooter drills, which mimic real events, offer students the chance to practice what they would do to stay safe should an individual open fire on their school. Experts say these precautions are important, offering crucial knowledge to kids that could help them make lifesaving decisions in the moments that matter most.

But while kids’ physical safety has been thoroughly studied, debated, and — as best as possible—protected, there is less discussion about the mental toll that school shootings take on America’s children. That was the focus of a recent newsletter sent out by the Child Mind Institute (CMI), a nonprofit dedicated to advancing knowledge about mental health issues in children.

Titled “Anxiety Over School Shootings,” the newsletter explores the types of feelings that children may be experiencing in the wake of the Florida shooting, as well as tips for parents to help their kids cope. The CMI newsletter features an interview with Jamie Howard, director of the organization’s Trauma and Resilience Service, who visited with kids from Sandy Hook Elementary in the aftermath of the shooting that killed 20 students and six adults in 2012

Howard says the first step to quelling anxiety is recognizing that although school shootings are unusually prevalent in America, they are still rare. “Because it’s so horrific and scary and important, it dominates the media and therefore our minds, and we think of it as a much bigger threat than it is,” Howard says. “The more you watch, the more it tricks your mind into thinking it’s an increased probability of occurring.”

Instead of dwelling on “what if,” Howard and CMI suggest being proactive. Here are five ways.

Kristi Gilroy (right), hugs a young woman last month at a police checkpoint near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were killed by a gunman. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

1. Bring up the topic with your kids rather than avoiding it

Although this sounds simple, CMI suggests that it’s the most important way to relieve anxiety surrounding school shootings. “Parents are sometimes afraid to bring up school shootings with their children, because they don’t want to scare them. But children will have often heard about a school shooting that is getting a lot of attention in the media, and bringing it up can actually alleviate any anxiety they might be feeling,” says CMI. “Avoiding potentially scary topics can make them scarier to children.”

2. Form a parent group at school to control your own anxiety

Inactivity is fuel for anxiety, so one way to use up some of that nervous energy is to start a group at school with other parents who are concerned about their kids too. This not only provides the opportunity to talk through the anxiety you are feeling, but also allots a time to brainstorm potential things that you, as adults, can do to keep your kids safe. “Assessing what the school needs, getting involved in the planning process for drills, and having ongoing conversations about keeping the school safe can make worried parents feel better,” says Howard.

3. Embrace active-shooter drills instead of shying away from them

Although active-shooter drills can seem intimidating to kids, and potentially scary, Howard suggests that the best method is embracing them as tool — a way to reinforce that there is a plan in place should something happen. “When teachers (and parents) talk about the drills, they should do it with a lot of confidence,” says Howard. “They should make it clear that school shootings, just like fires, are unlikely, but [then say], ‘We are going to be ready if it happens. This is what we’re going to do to stay safe.’”

4. Make it clear that unusual behavior should be mentioned

Howard suggests having a conversation with kids about how to react if or when they recognize a classmate is withdrawing. Howard suggests putting it this way: “If a classmate of yours is struggling, we don’t do nothing. We don’t gossip about them. We tell a grown-up so they can get help,” she says. “Or if your child is a teenager, and another student says or writes something scary, the same advice holds: They should let an adult know.” This not only protects kids from a classmate who may be dangerous, but also lets them know that people are there to protect them.

5. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, step away from the screen

Making sure your kids are not consumed with anxiety is important, but taking care of yourself is too. Howard says to be cognizant of how much time you’re spending reading the news and watching coverage of other shootings, and, if you’re finding yourself consumed with worry, to take a break. “If you feel that you are more anxious than you should be, a good first step is always to take a break from any media that might be focusing your attention in an unhealthy direction,” says Howard. “Some anxiety is warranted; debilitating anxiety is not.”

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