GAINESVILLE, Fla. – While shootings are on parents’ minds as the school year begins, children are even more susceptible to the stress and anxiety caused by previous events, said a University of Florida researcher.
“The age of the child makes a difference in what kids are communicating. Stress can look different at different ages,” said Sarah Lynne, assistant professor in the UF/IFAS department of family, youth and community sciences who specializes in youth violence prevention and behavioral health. “For example, elementary school kids may experience physical symptoms such as not wanting to go to school because their stomachs hurt. They may not be able to say what is stressing them out.”
Though school fatalities are rare, they are devastating, Lynne said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 31 homicides of school-age youth, ages 5 to 18 years, occurred at school during the 2012-2013 school year. The most recent school shooting, in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead.
“Understandably, schools are holding drills to increase the safety of children during a crisis,” Lynne said. “In turn, parents should have a plan in place, which is similar to preparing for other uncommon disasters such as a fire in the house. Think of it as emergency preparedness, but it will be different depending on the age of the child.”
Lynne offers the following tips:
- Keep it simple: Giving too much detail to a younger child will just add more stress, she said.
- Basic info: Make sure the child knows their parents’ names, address and phone numbers.
- Listen: Encourage children to listen to and follow instructions of the adult/teacher. “This is important for any emergency but particularly in this case because depending on circumstances it may to safer to stay in place quietly or run or take a different action. Encourage your children to stop, breathe and really listen to the adult in charge who will help them find a safe space.”
- Identify: If the child sees trouble coming, find the nearest teacher, administrator or school resource officer. They shouldn’t try to diffuse the situation on their own.
- Family plan: Tell the child that even if they can’t get a hold of a parent, this is what the parent will be doing. “Children need to be reassured that their parents will be trying to get to them,” Lynne said.
- School plan: Parents should become familiar with school responses and drills, so kids will be reassured that there is consistency in planning.
Some kids won’t be showing anxiety over school shootings. For these kids, it is still important to make sure they know their parent’s contact information and that they should listen to their teachers in the case of any emergency.
There are also some kids with anxiety who won’t be soothed by having a plan in place, Lynne said. “If your child’s stress or anxiety related to school shootings is preventing them from going to school or hanging out with their friends, that’s the time to reach out to the family pediatrician, who may have referrals for other healthcare providers who can help,” she said.
“Also, reach out to the school nurse, guidance counselor, or school psychologist. They may have services they can offer to kids to deal with stress and anxiety during the school day,” Lynne said. “Having those connections between family, school and physician is having a team of support for kids’ health, and may reduce stress and anxiety in a coordinated approach.”
Most importantly, pay attention to what kids are showing and telling you, Lynne said. “It’s important to be proactive; don’t wait until it affects kids’ grades and attendance. Deal with stress and anxiety as soon as you notice symptoms.”
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.