News of mass violence leaves most of us feeling grieved, angry, and baffled. But the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, was especially stunning. The killings took place in a quiet, close-knit, “safe,” virtually crime-free community. The school had just implemented new security measures designed to protect students by keeping intruders out. The victims were small children and their would-be protectors—school teachers and administrators.
This event forces us to reckon with the stark reality that we cannot guarantee our children’s safety. There is no risk-free neighborhood. There is no fail-safe security system. There is no reliable way to predict or prevent monstrous violence. We can manage risk for our children, but we cannot eliminate it.
According to Dustin Tibbitts, clinical director and president of InnerChange adolescent treatment centers, our natural and understandable impulse is to hide this reality from our children.
“The problem with trying to convince children that we can keep them safe no matter what is that they won’t believe us. Children instinctively know that there are situations where we cannot guarantee their safety.”
As a result, well-intentioned, wishful attempts to convince our children otherwise are likely to backfire, exacerbating instead of relieving anxiety. Platitudes in the face of legitimate worries can squelch conversations that might otherwise help our children come to terms with their anxieties.
Just days before the shooting at Sandy Hook, Tibbitts’s own seven year-old son had participated in an “active shooter” drill at his school designed to prepare teachers and students for possible school violence.
“Cam is already an anxious kid and he understood the connection between the drill and the event at Sandy Hook, which he learned about from his classmates.”
When Cam asked his father what would happen to him if a shooter came to his school, Tibbitts’s impulse was to offer a false sense of security—promising safety, assuring Cam that nothing like this would ever—could ever—happen at his school.
“But I knew he wouldn’t buy it.”
So Tibbitts deferred to his training as a trauma therapist and gently turned the question back to his son, asking Cam what he thought would happen if a gunman came to his school.
“I would get down on the ground,” Cam answered tentatively, remembering the drill he had recently practiced at school. Tibbitts resisted the temptation to break the silence that followed, instead letting Cam think things through on his own. “But he might see me anyway,” Cam finally concluded.
“Well,” Tibbitt’s answered, “what would you do then?”
“I would pray,” Cam said.
“And would that keep you from being hurt? Would that make you safe?”
“He might shoot me.”
“And then what?”
Tibbitt’s recalls that his wife was observing the conversation with as much restraint as she could muster, but “she was clearly wondering where the heck this conversation was going.”
“Then maybe it would hurt for a little bit,” said Cam, pausing, imagining. “And then I would go to heaven. I would see grandma again.”
At that point, said Tibbitts, Cam’s face relaxed.
“That was the thought process he needed to go through to let go of the anxiety he’d been carrying around. His conclusion didn’t necessarily satisfy me, but it was what Cam needed. I just gave him the space to solve the problem his own way without interrupting the process with false reassurances.”
Days later, Cam’s teacher conducted a follow-up discussion to allow her students to debrief the emergency drills. She reported that Cam was particularly calm and helpful during these discussions despite the fact that he had demonstrated a very high level of anxiety immediately following the drills. Tibbitts was reassured to hear that “Cam was able to generalize our conversation to the classroom. His anxiety, while still present, is no longer debilitating,”
Daring to allow our children to experience their anxiety, speak about the unspeakable, and follow their own thought process toward resolution tends to be more productive, says Tibbitts, than shutting down scary conversations with platitudes.
Tibbitts and other mental health professionals advocate protecting young children from media coverage and conversations that are not age-appropriate and that might trigger anxiety. But when our children do encounter frightening information despite our best efforts, listening actively, answering truthfully, and nudging them toward their own conclusions can be the most comforting and productive course of action.