Anxiety in the Age of Gun Violence


Following the most recent mass shootings, our 11-year-old has become anxious about going to school. Any suggestions for how we can ease her fears? 

Anonymous, Charleston, SC

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Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D

Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with LD, NLD and autism-spectrum disorders.

When mass shootings and random gun violence dominate headlines, it’s not surprising for kids (and parents) to become nervous about their safety at school and other public places. But it’s challenging to allay your child’s fears when we’re anxious as well. The first and most important point is that you need to talk about this when you can be calm yoursef. A child can “read” anxiety from your nonverbal language cues—after all, who knows you better?

This may seem obvious, but when there is a mass shooting, don’t keep the TV or radio coverage playing. Hearing and seeing the horror unfold in a continuous loop over and over feeds the fear and drives up anxiety.

Step away from the screen, but not the issue. You want to give your child the opportunity to ask questions. If she raises the subject of school safety, find out her specific concerns. If the subject of gun violence doesn’t come up spontaneously, open the door by asking what’s on her mind. Either way, stay focused on what worries her, not what worries you. She might be wondering why there are bad people in the world, or about children she saw on TV, or about her own safety. Keep your answers simple, direct and appropriate for her age and maturity level.

In order to be able to answer questions about her school in particular, you need to be familiar with your school’s procedures. If you’re not fully informed already, talk to the appropriate administrator about the school’s security policy and procedures. Ask your child’s teacher how shelter-in-place drills are conducted, and what kind of discussions they have about drills or after a school shooting. You’ll want to explain how the adults are keeping her safe, and use the same language she’s already hearing, adding your ideas to elaborate.

Relaxation Techniques

If your child is really anxious, teach self-calming skills. When she’s feeling anxious, even a minute or two of a relaxation technique can help restore calmness. It’s important to practice consistently and at a time when she’s calm. Here are some that work:

  • For all ages, a “safe place” relaxation is one where the child visualizes somewhere she feels safe, whether a real place or an imaginary one. For directions see Imagery: Basic Relaxation Script on the PsychCentral website.
  • There are also apps that teach breathing relaxation or meditations for all ages. Calm, and Headspace are two that have specific programs for children. Kids should practice for a little while every day, maybe at bedtime. Meditations can have any focus, not just noticing breaths. Saying a calming phrase, counting, yoga and even walking can all be meditations. Insight Timer has an entire section of meditations for children.
  • For others with young children, good meditation apps are Breath, Think and Do with Sesame for young children age 4+ and Wellbeyond. There’s also, Thought Bubbles/Cosmic Kids Zen Den, a cute YouTube video that teaches about letting go of thoughts and breathing.

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