Anxiety around Children Returning to School

Written by Pamela Malone, Ph.D., LCSW-S, Fellow in Thanatology, Clinical Director and Rachel Saffer, LCSW-S, Director of Children’s Services


In response to the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, many parents are concerned about their own and their children’s anxiety about safety while returning to school this year. Although school is typically a safe place, obviously there are risks. Since Columbine in 1999, there have been 14 mass school shootings. It is common for parents to experience fear and anxiety in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting, and for children to experience anxiety and/or behavioral problems. Some examples are difficulties with sleep (both going to sleep and staying asleep), inattention or becoming easily distracted, heightened startle reflex in response to loud noises, and irritability. Most children will be able to quickly resume their normal daily activities when school begins. Parental patience is very important.


Here are some important guidelines:


Talk About It

  • Allow children to ask questions

  • Be honest with children and share as much information as they are developmentally able to handle, and in a natural and age-appropriate way

  • Especially young children need to have these conversations over and over, and sometimes in small bits

  • It will take time for parents to comfort children and help them process tragic events

  • Talking can help reduce misconceptions and misinformation, and provide an opportunity to offer support and reassurance

  • Talk about how to cope when they are feeling concerned or anxious


Acknowledge Feelings and Fears

  • Listen to children’s fears and concerns

  • Validate and normalize any fears or worries children might have

  • It is okay to be stressed and it is very appropriate

  • Identify how you are feeling and model that for your children

  • Reassure children that it is okay to be scared, sad, angry, and to cry


Limit Media Exposure

  • Limit exposure to television and the news

  • Avoid a constant flow of information about traumatic events through tv, social media, and other news outlets

  • Senses are very powerful, so safeguard the photos and images children see, sounds they hear, and other ways they are exposed to information about the event


Reestablish a Sense of Safety

  • Maintain normal family rhythms and routines, especially around mealtimes, bedtimes, and caregiver interactions

  • Children gain security from the predictability of routine including attending school

  • Remind children that the adults in their lives will continue to do everything they can to keep them safe, and that their own school has a safety protocol or plan in place for similar events

  • Coming up with a family safety plan in case of an emergency can help ease anxiety


Watch for Symptoms of Fear and Anxiety

  • Symptoms of distress in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event typically subside within 4-6 weeks

  • Persistent and increasingly more intense symptoms indicate the need for professional help

  • These include changes in appetite, sleep disturbances and/or nightmares, unexplained stomachaches or headaches, difficulty focusing, and constant thinking, sensitivity to loud noises, fear of separation from caretakers, a desire to stay home and talking about the event


Parents know their children best and need to trust their own judgment about what they notice in their children and what they need.

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