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How School Shooter Drills Impact Kids' Mental Health — & How Parents Can Help

Since 1999, there have been 386 school shootings. Forty-six in 2022 alone. It’s a devastating and sobering number — one most of us can’t wrap our heads around as we prepare to send our tweens and teens back to school.

In response to the sheer and unimaginable number of school shootings, many schools have implemented school shooter drills, teaching kids how to hide, how to stay quiet, and how to evacuate in the event of the unimaginable. It’s a tactic that focuses on preparation versus prevention — a strategy criticized by many parents and experts who say school shooter drills do little to prepare students while potentially traumatizing them.

They’re not wrong — at least in drawing a correlation between school shooter drills and their mental health impact on kids. In 2021, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology analyzed 54 million social media posts after school shooter drills in 33 states. In a study published in Nature, they found a 40 percent increase in the number of posts that “suggested stress, anxiety, and depression after students participated in drills.”

With the results of that study in mind, parents are stuck between a rock and a hard place. We want to protect our kids in all the ways — physically, mentally, and emotionally. But what if the thing that potentially protects them physically ends up hurting them mentally?

SheKnows interviewed Zuania Capó, an integrative and multicultural licensed psychotherapist at Integrative Therapy New York and New Jersey, about how best to help kids navigate school shooter drill anxiety.

Have Open Conversations Before and After Drills

Tweens and teens are not exactly famous for their desire to communicate with their parents, and yet one of the best things to do as kids head back to school and face another year of school shooter drills is have an open conversation.

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One way to start talking to your teens is to ask open-ended questions. Questions like “do you feel comfortable about the drills?” or “how do you feel before, during, and after drills?” are good places to start because they allow the child to guide the conversation.

If, and hopefully when, kids do open up, parents should make an effort to actively listen — and then validate what kids are feeling. In an interview with Parents magazine, Gene Beresin, M.D., psychiatrist and executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, noted, “The key is to listen to them and validate their feelings. This way, they know you are paying attention to their concerns.”

When considering what to ask and what to say, it’s important to keep in mind the developmental level of your child, says Capó, who notes that tweens and younger teens may require more simplified explanations, while older teens can handle more complex discussions.

During the conversation, parents can also discuss ways to manage anxiety and model how they themselves are managing anxiety.

Balance the Important Information with a Sense of Safety

One of the hardest parts about addressing school shooter drills with tweens and teens is approaching the conversation without sounding alarmist. Capó encourages parents to approach the conversation with sensitivity while focusing on support and preparedness.

“It’s vital to balance the message between providing them with important information and maintaining a sense of safety and calm,” advises Capó. “Emphasize that these incidents are rare and that schools are generally safe places. Instead of dwelling on worst-case scenarios, focus on positive actions they can take to stay safe.”

Niro Feliciano, LCSW, a Connecticut-based psychotherapist, anxiety specialist, echoed this idea in an interview, where she encouraged parents to compare school shooter drills to fire drills. She noted, “We have to explain to them, statistically, the chances of mass shootings happening at their school are small, but we like to be prepared for the situation — just like we do fire drills.”

The goal is to ensure that teens and tweens feel empowered and secure, not afraid and alarmed.

Stay Informed About Your School’s Shooter Drills

One of the best ways to provide support for anxious students is to stay informed about the school’s shooting drill plan. In an interview with Parents, Lawrence Tyson, PhD, associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education, encouraged parents to reach out to school counselors or administrators and learn how frequent the drills are and how they look, as in whether law enforcement is involved and what happens after the drills.

Similarly, Capó suggest parents keep open lines of communication with the school and establish relationships with their children’s teachers to “ensure ongoing support and monitoring of their well-being.”

Find Additional Support if Anxiety is High

In some instances, despite a parent’s best efforts, additional support may be necessary — particularly if anxiety is impacting a teen’s daily functioning.

In those instances, Capó encourages parents to ask their school counselors for relevant resources, consult with mental health professionals in their area, or check out the information available from organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), and Mental Health America (MHA).

In a perfect world, parents in America wouldn’t have to worry about managing the anxiety that comes with school shooter drills. Unfortunately, until lawmakers manage to do more than offer up “thoughts and prayers” when it comes to gun violence, school shooter drills are most likely here to stay. Which means teens and tweens will be dealing with the drills, and the anxiety they can induce, for years to come.

While there is no simple solution for parents, the best option is to be engaged and present in the process, to listen and validate — and remember: we can’t stop bad things from happening, and we can’t protect our teens from all things, but we can trust that we know our kids best, and that they will look to us for guidance when things are worst. The more we can model how to stay informed and stay calm, the better they’ll be able to do it when we aren’t around.

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  • Posted on August 24, 2023