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How to Reassure Your Children in the Wake of a High School Mass Shooting Plot

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The day has finally arrived. My "baby boy," the youngest of three, has started high school. I envisioned this as a poignant time full of back-to-school shopping, lively discussions of his fall schedule and teachers, and bittersweet musings of how do the years pass so quickly.

And it was. Until last week when I learned that police had thwarted an alleged planned mass shooting plot at South Pasadena High School in South Pasadena, CA where my son began his freshman year last Thursday. Two students with a credible plan wanted to "kill as many people as possible," according to local police.

Quickly my feelings of anticipation for the school year morphed into fear and worry. More importantly, my son is shaken. "What if they let the kids back in school?" he asked me. He also had second thoughts about his cross country workouts at 5:45 a.m. because the pre-dawn hour when the team gathers is "dark and creepy," he said.

The two students accused of plotting the shootings were arrested. The system in place to red-flag and avert such tragedies worked. Yet the anxieties and uncertainties linger. How can I -- and other parents -- confronting this or similar scares reassure our children as they return to the classroom? Staff from Hillsides, a Pasadena-headquartered non-profit serving vulnerable children, young, and families in Los Angels County, offers these tips:

Listen to your kids. Allow your children to talk about their fears, concerns, and feelings, recommends Hillsides Education Center counselor Jill Anderson. "They may be surprised, angry, upset or afraid. They want someone to listen to them and acknowledge what they are feeling."

Be open and honest. "Help kids feel empowered by providing them with age-appropriate information," says Cindy Real, director of Hillsides Pasadena Family Resource Center. Limit their exposure to any media coverage of the event, however, which can exacerbate fears. Instead, she suggests, "Make plans to do something as a family that feels good and is enjoyable versus watching the news repeatedly."

Stress the positive. "Let kids know that the whole community (parents, school, and police) is working very hard to keep students safe. Keep reminding them that their safety is a priority," says Anderson.

Develop a safety plan. Figure out a designated "go to" person at school, home, or in the community your child can talk to if he or she suspects anything in the future, recommends Real. Children will find this empowering because it gives them a sense of control.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. Symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression may be common following a traumatic event. "Turn to professionals a (school counselor, local mental health services, a pediatrician) for assistance if your child or family members are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or difficulty coping," advises Anderson. There is also a Disaster Distress Helpline that is free and confidential. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text 66746.

Be alert to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Here are some symptoms to look for that may require professional help, says Real: Intense fear, helplessness, nightmares, confusion, disorganized or agitated behavior, difficulty concentrating, recurrent and intrusive distressing thoughts, avoidance of thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma, avoidance of people or places, irritability, or hypervigilance.


Note: This post was originally posted in a modified version on Hillsides wellness blog.

For more information on Hillsides, please visit www.hillsides.org.