ASSIGNMENT 13: Critical Conversations

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- Recent school shootings may be raising questions for children such as ‘Who would do such a thing? Can it happen to me? Is anyone really safe?’

While there may be no easy answers psychologists say it is important for parents to try and explain what's happened in order to help ease fears and anxieties about their child's personal safety.

In an Assignment 13 Report WEAU’s Jessica Bringe looked into how to talk to kids about gun violence.

Since a gunman shot and killed twenty children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut more than three years ago, Eau Claire mother Cynthia Hunt has given a lot of thought to how she should discuss gun violence with her two children.

“Generally speaking I try not to dwell on those things too much but also, there is a reality that those kinds of things do happen, and they have to be somewhat aware of those things,” said Hunt.

Hunt says following the shooting her children, now ages ten and twelve, had worries she and her husband had to address without creating an environment of fear.

“They have enough anxiety on their own and I don't want to scare them more so what we did is talk about it when they want to,” explained Hunt.

Child psychotherapist Jennifer Wickham with Mayo Clinic Health System says it's important to not discourage children from speaking up.

Wickham said, “Letting the child know that we're there to listen to any of their worries they have when they're ready to talk about it but not to avoid it and not to hide it because these are things are, unfortunately, part of our life and we want our children to be prepared.”

Wickham says parents should begin by asking kids what they know about a situation and what questions they have, then answer directly without providing more details than necessary.

“Just a very short factual answer about safety and about how we as adults are helping them keep safe and any specific things that kids can do to help learn to keep themselves safe,” said Wickham.

Wickham says for children, knowing all the adults in their life have a consistent understanding of safety protocols is reassuring which is why she recommends parents remain aware of their child's school safety plans.

Meadowview Elementary School counselor Randy Richter says students go through lockdown safety drills several times a year.

“We have a safety curriculum that we do teach all students starting in kindergarten on up,” said Richter.

For safety reasons Richter didn't release the details but he does say students practice being quiet to help ease any anxiety.

He said, “Obviously the concerns have increased because of incidents that have occurred across the county but at the same time I think our students, our staff, our families are very comfortable and know that the appropriate steps are being taken to make sure that they're children are going to be safe while they're here at school.”

Kindergarten teacher Dylan Leonard says teaching students the safety protocol early helps them learn other subjects comfortably while they're in the classroom.

“We want to make sure when they walk into this building that they're safe and they know this is a safe environment for them and we're here to protect them,” said Leonard.

By practicing drills at school and having parents discuss gun violence openly with their kids Wickham says it prepares children for dangerous situations without having them grow up in fear.

“Give them a lot of love, reassure them, be confident, and talk about safety plans that are in the school,” summarized Wickham.

Hunt says she'll keep addressing gun violence with her children but she just hopes fear won't influence how they navigate their world.

“I want my children to know that people are generally good and that they should be able to trust other people,” said Hunt.

Wickham says to avoid answering questions about shootings before bedtime since a child's anxiety could spiral late at night.

She also says to watch out for noticeable changes in behavior such as not sleeping well, refusal to go to school, increased irritability and withdrawal from friends.

If the changes in behavior last longer than a week she suggests parents approach their pediatrician to address concerns and possibly get a referral for a counselor.

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