There was a serious school lock-down in Rockland on May 29. Although I know very little about the circumstances, I’ve heard directly from several parents and a school staff member. Wanting to believe our midcoast communities are immune to this terrible exposure, this was quite a wake-up call. With school children traumatized by the experience, families feeling more fearful and angry, and staff realizing their enormous responsibility, a period of healing is needed. With our sense of being removed from the rest of the country’s instability, where violence occurs, our innocence has now been shaken. There was no gradual awakening of our peaceful community, as this lock-down presented a very real, potentially deadly, threat to our children, school personnel and the entire school community. There was a time not that long ago when the issue of lethal violence was marginalized. Everything changed in April 1999 in the wake of the Littleton shootings in Colorado. What has developed since that time is that now all of the United States sees or hears in the news that their children are involved in or victim to violence. In this May 29 situation, the threat did not come from a rejected or lost student, but from an adult.

What’s most important during this healing period is to focus on how we talk to our children about very scary experiences and keeping them safe.The initial shock and fear of these events becomes diluted over time, as we gradually resume our normal lives, seeking comfort in the predictability of our daily routines. Time is a healer, particularly when it seems peace has been restored, with hope and optimism rejuvenated. Yet this experience has increased anxiety in many children. Parents have tremendous influence, and responsibility, in how and what is communicated to our children. Certainly very young children are affected greatly by their parents’ level of stress and emotional availability. Expressions of these feelings will vary in children, depending on age, development, and temperament, manifesting in different ways. As with any crisis, children need parental help in coping and feeling safe. Hearing and/or seeing news reports, images of school shootings, or discussions of potential school attacks, raises serious concern in children that these events may be repeated, that they are not safe, and that either they, or their family members, could be harmed or killed. They worry about being separated from their parents. Often parents and teachers will see increased anxiety and distress recurring when children are brought to school, when separation from a parent is imminent.

What’s most important is to restore some sense of normalcy for assisting our children in coping adequately. How do we recognize the signs that our child may be adversely affected? The best “rule of thumb” is to be attentive to any changes in our child, any regressive behavior. Unusual night wakening, nightmares, returning to an earlier stage of development, aggression, clinging behavior, separation difficulties, emotional outbursts, and generally seeming more fearful, or less secure, are all possible indications that our child is being affected by this potential threat, or any other emotional crisis (be aware that there could be something else requiring attention, and causing distress for your child).

Anxiety has a way of making us feel helpless. It’s challenging to know what to do when our children are flooded with anxiety. Most important is their need for a strong, steady presence. Nothing we can say or do can make the anxiety disappear, however having a parent “walking through” the fear with them makes a big difference. Children are amazing, resilient, with enormous capacity to bravely navigate through their anxiety to reach the other side. As painful as it is for parents to witness their children’s fears, we need to trust in their courage and inner strength to master difficult situations. Speaking openly about the prevailing fears, naming them rather than avoiding conversations, hoping they’ll evaporate if we ignore them, is important. Our children need reassurance that they are loved and safe, that we will be there for them. Young children, particularly pre-school age and younger, should not be exposed to television or computer viewing of these events. Limit the amount of exposure school-aged children have to ongoing graphic new reporting.

Touch is always nourishing. Plenty of hugs and snuggling provide comfort. Be straightforward with your child, expressing your feelings about the events or any potential threat, allowing them to do the same. Answer questions honestly, keeping the facts simple. Young children need brief, limited information. Preschool-age children maintain an active fantasy life, and this age group may be the most distressed by what they hear and see. They quickly become overwhelmed, with their fantasies easily confused with the factual information. Never punish your child for regressive behavior (thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, etc.), but encourage them to use words or play (drawing, painting, clay) to express their fears. Maintain as normal a schedule as possible, keeping your routine predictable, which helps children feel more secure. Maintain consistent, open communication between teachers, caregivers, relatives to monitor how your child is behaving, whether there are any changes, while also advising them of any emotional reactions or changes you might observe in your child.

Children’s play is a wonderful tool through which they can work out their anxiety and make sense of the prevailing circumstances. At the same time, play can also be an indicator to parents of more troubling emotions a child is struggling to overcome. Offer your child emotional outlets through activity, play, reading. Older children are more able to talk about their concerns, however parents must ensure they’re providing flexible availability to them during particularly stressful times. Make time to relax, have fun, and connect emotionally with your children.

Facing the realty that our community has been traumatized by an event perhaps we believed wouldn’t show up in midcoast Maine, a wonderful reminder others have said and I want to reinforce: “Students don’t care what we know until they first know we care.” It is within this caring, genuine relationship that any of our interventions will be most successful and our schools can be the most supportive and safe.

Part two on this next week.