So many kids of this generation have experienced lockdown drills as a routine part of going to school, much like a fire drill. But what about when it’s NOT just a drill, and there’s a threat or emergency occurring at or near your kid’s school?
Even if everyone at school turns out to be safe (which is often the case), unexpected lockdowns can still scare and upset children and teens — and their parents! — and can be a source of added anxiety or stress for the family.
Older kids and adults are likely to think about recent mass shootings whenever there is a lockdown — and that can cause significant distress even after they’ve gotten the “all clear” signal. Younger kids may not be aware of that possibility yet, but could still be scared about potential danger or unexpected changes to the routine.
Here’s how to manage what is unfortunately a common situation for families — along with an age-targeted guide to what to say after a lockdown.
Tell them calmly and honestly about what happened
If something occurred to trigger the emergency response at school, it’s important to start a conversation about it with kids. They’ve likely already heard a flurry of information, some of which might not be accurate. You want to be a source of calm reassurance and accurate information for them.
When talking about upsetting news, be sure to start by finding out what they’ve already heard. You’ll also want to answer their questions honestly, but without too much graphic detail. The younger they are, the simpler your explanations can be. And keep things hopeful by including information about who is helping to keep them safe.
Assuming that you’ve already explained what safety drills are for, here are some examples of what you could say and ask after an incident, depending on your child’s age.
For preschoolers and kindergarteners:
“The school told me you had safety practice today. Did your teachers tell you why?
There was a person who was not being safe near the school. So your teachers wanted to keep you safe and make sure no one got hurt.
There are lots of helpers at school to make it a very safe place for you. Who are some of the helpers?
If you ever feel worried about anything, I’m always here to listen and give hugs.”
For elementary aged kids:
“The school told me you had an emergency drill today. Did your teachers tell you why?
Did you feel calm? What about your friends?
There was someone who was using a gun in the neighborhood near school. When your principal heard about that, she decided to have the whole school get ready for an emergency, to keep everyone safe and make sure no one got hurt.
Do you have any questions about what happened?
It’s OK if these things bother you in any way. I’m always here if you want to talk about it.
Should we draw? I love doing that together.”
For tweens and teens:
“How did you and your friends do during the lockdown?
How much did you hear about why it happened?
There was someone shooting a gun two blocks away, but luckily it had nothing to do with your school. The lockdown might have been scary, but the school was trying to be prepared just in case.
Do you understand why they decided to do that? Do you want to review the emergency plan together?
It’s OK if these things bother you in any way. I’m here if you want to talk now or any other time.
I know that being on my phone right now will just give me more things to worry about, so let’s do something else together that will be more comforting.”
Invite your child to talk, and also “listen” to their behavior
“Invite your child to talk, but wait for your child to accept the invitation,” advises the American Academy of Pediatrics. Create an environment for open discussion without judgment, and let them know that you are available anytime, even if they’re not ready to talk now.
Some kids may not be able to talk about their feelings, or may hide their feelings so as not to worry you or make a big deal out of it. So be aware of signs of distress that could show up in other ways. For example, kids who are not coping well after a disturbing event might have trouble sleeping, show changes in behavior, or have unexplained headaches, stomachaches, or other physical complaints.
Don’t hesitate to consult your pediatrician or school psychologist if you’re concerned about your child’s mental health or behavior following a distressing event.
Avoid too much news, gossip, and social media
If you and/or your child need to calm nerves after an emergency situation, texting friends endlessly about what may or may not have happened is probably not going to help. You (and/or your kid) can tell friends that you are OK but that you need some time off of screens to destress or to spend time with your family, and that you will check in with them again later.
Also try to keep your media consumption to a minimum, and avoid graphic images and videos of any crimes or traumatic events. Young kids shouldn’t be watching or listening to the news at all — but for older kids and teens who are ready for that information, be sure to watch alongside them and take frequent breaks so that you can discuss and offer your support.
If kids have access to social media, reiterate that not everything they see on social media is accurate. Ask them to show you anything they’re not sure about so you can fact-check it together.
Most of all, try to put your phone to the side and offer to spend quality time with your child, even if they don’t want to talk. For example, you could cook/bake together, shoot some hoops, or draw while listening to music.
Review your school and family emergency plans
Refamiliarize yourself with your school’s policies regarding lockdown drills and emergency preparedness, and how parents should get in touch or meet up after an emergency. Review your list of emergency contacts for your child, and make sure it’s up to date.
If your child needs extra support due to anxiety or any other emotional, behavioral, or mobility concerns, have a meeting with school administrators about the best way to work with your child in case of an emergency at school.
A combination of being prepared, talking afterward, and using coping strategies to calm down should help your family in the event of a false alarm. These events are never welcome, but if you model healthy responses, including talking about the mixed emotions you may have, your child will be more prepared for the future.