Monthly Archives: December 2012

Helping our children cope with this tragedy

Rocked to the core

Today’s mass killing of innocent young children and adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School has rocked us to our core. On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, unthinkable act by a disturbed individual. It shatters our belief of school as a safe haven– a place where we can just be that we count on as being safe. I was an elementary principal and can only imagine the horror of the scene.

As we adults grieve and process what happened and seek information and motive, we need to keep in mind that our own children still count on us to protect and care for them emotionally and psychologically. This means acting as responsible adults who make their needs the priority.

Not all children will hear about the shooting, nor do they need to, especially young children, and we should avoid burdening them unnecessarily. If they are older, directly affected, or do ask questions, we can respond in a way that reduces anxiety and builds their sense of security. While devastating, we need to remember that school shootings and other fatal acts are still very rare, and that less than 2% of youth murders occur in school. This statistic does not make what happened easier to accept, but it does put it in perspective as we and our children cope.

What do we say?

If your children do ask questions about the tragedy or are exposed to media coverage, we can mitigate the negative effect…

  • First, sit down together.
  • Turn off the TV, computers, and cell phones.
  • Then reassure them, and yourselves, that they are safe, that school shootings are extremely rare.
  • Listen to their concerns.
  • Answer questions rationally and calmly, according to the child’s developmental level.
  • Give only the information asked for; grizzly details are harmful and produce more anxiety.
  • Keep the TV off while your children are around.
  • Create normalcy by doing your usual routines.
  • Love and be there for them.

And then we can search our souls for what we can and need to do to help our country heal and become a less violent place.


My child is being bullied

My child doesn’t want to go to school. The reason? She’s being bullied.

No child should have to suffer being bullied or need to change schools to feel safe. In the span of two weeks, in two separate medical offices, I had a conversation with a doctor and a nurse about bullying in schools. The doctor expressed concern for her own daughter and dismay at how her receptionist had to move her daughter to a new school to avoid being bullied.  The nurse’s situation was not new to me, as we had talked about her first-grade daughter being bullied by other girls while it was happening, and how she finally went to the principal for help.

It was when I recently asked her how things were going that she welled up and told me things had turned around and were going well, thanks to a principal who took her concerns seriously and acted immediately. She was so grateful for the principal’s actions and couldn’t say enough about how much she respected and appreciated her. She wished all schools were blessed with a principal of her professionalism and compassion. I had to agree.

But what struck me was her anxiety over reporting the incidents in the first place, and the fear of being labeled a problem mother who is always complaining, and the repercussions of getting a group of her daughter’s classmates in trouble. Even with her child refusing to do homework and read each night as she usually did, and not wanting to go to school, she wasn’t sure how to handle it. It was with her heart broken over the pain her daughter was enduring that she went to the principal and exposed the bullying.

She knows she did the right and necessary thing, but it was not easy. The message that bullying is not tolerated and should be reported had not reached her and likely not reached the other parents. It took courage and some outrage to walk through that school door and march into the principal’s office. It took facing up to her peers – the other children’s parents – and righting a terrible wrong. And she feared reprisal and making her daughter’s life even more difficult.

She shouldn’t have had to feel this way. Effective school climate efforts are intentional and boldly advertised: We don’t do that here. We are better people than that. We know how to treat others with empathy and respect. This message changes school culture to where the protection of our students’ physical, psychological, and emotional safety becomes the norm. It is critical, and in most states a legal requirement, to have a school policy on bullying and harassment, but effecting change in the school culture to make violence taboo takes a concerted and visible effort by the school leadership. A policy is not a piece of paper; it is a living thing. Teachers, students, staff, parents, and administrators all need education about the many forms of school violence and accept that none of it is okay. They need to know there is a difference between “telling on” someone and reporting an abuse, and that the administration will listen to their concerns and bring the problem to resolution. The bottom line is they need to believe the school will and has an obligation to make the bullying stop.

Schools need to get out this message: Please speak up. We will listen and make it right. We promise.

My nurse’s daughter is now happy at school, back to reading for enjoyment and tackling her schoolwork. Her mother is a hero; she will look back with pride and satisfaction to the time when she stepped up and used her personal power to protect her child. We now need to change the way we do things so that we welcome all parents when they come to us with a concern and that we thank them for helping us keep our promise that our school is a safe haven for their children.

Bullying happens in all schools at all grade levels. This incident was in a first grade in a very small parochial school. For more information on what bullying looks like and what you can do, check out my other posts and my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.