Helping kids deal with school threats

Student safety has been at the forefront of news coverage following a recent school shooting in Ohio. Threatening notes were found at Quincy Junior High school last week. That leaves many parents wondering how they can address this issue with their kids.

Mark Vander Ley is a therapist at Chaddock Family Solutions in Quincy. He says school shootings are scary, but threats like those at Quincy Junior High School bring the uncertainty even closer to home.

"I think their world view could be rocked a little bit. They begin to realize that school may not be as safe as they thought," Vander Ley said.

He said every child will handle threatening notes differently. He says it's normal for students to experience fear, anxiety, uncertainty and insecurity about what's happening. The question is, when should parents become concerned with their child's reaction?

"I think only when it becomes a really extreme case of anxiety or uncertainty. I think one of the most obvious signs is a child who is extremely anxious about going to school or refuses to go to school, perhaps acting like they're sick when they aren't sick to get out of going to school. It's when it gets to the extreme," Vander Ley said. "Maybe they're preoccupied with the incident and they can't stop asking questions about it or their behavior changes. If you see your child is becoming hyper-vigilant, always on the lookout to see if someone is going to hurt them, or having trouble sleeping or some significant behavior changes are going to be the clue when parents should be concerned what their kids are thinking."

So how should a parent react? VanderLey says it's all about communication.

"Making sure you're listening to them and validating their experiences feelings and thoughts, even if they seem a little irrational at times," he said.

Vander Ley says parents should be a sort of holding container for kids' scary thoughts, emotions and experiences.

"When we can contain those things, it makes them feel a lot safer. Parents should also talk about what the school is doing, and what the parents are doing to keep their child safe," Vander Ley said.

No one likes to feel powerless, including your student. He says that's why it's important to help your child come up with his own plan of action.-- what he can do if he feels unsafe.

"You can talk to a school counselor, go to a teacher you can trust, and this is how you can get a hold of me if you need to if you don't feel safe, so giving them a plan gives them some sense of control. They can say okay, this is scary, I'm going to take control and do what I need to do to keep myself safe," Vander Ley said. "It gives them a sense of being powerful and a sense that I don't have to be anxious because I can do something."

Vander Ley also has advice if your child says, "I hope I don't die today?".

"I would think that you could maybe be pleased that your child is expressing those fears in an open way and continue to encourage your child to express any fears and anxieties they have. Then refer back to, 'This is how we're going to keep you safe and this is how you can keep yourself safe,'" Vander Ley said.

Think positively. Sarcasm and humorous comments are positive ways to deal with stressful situations. Keep the lines of communication open and refer back to plans in place to keep them safe.