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Childhood anxiety related to school safety is normal and treatable, experts say

Students walk through school hallway.
Students walk through school hallway.(WHSV)
Published: Dec. 14, 2021 at 5:14 PM EST
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AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) - Memories of school shootings and other traumatic events continue to impact children, even if they weren’t there.

Over the past week, the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office investigated multiple threats to local schools. Experts say it’s common for children to have anxiety about perceived threats of violence, especially when those threats come around shortly after a school shooting.

Augusta Health Licensed Clinical Social Worker Andrea Kendall said traumatizing events can seem close to home and frequent, even if they aren’t.

“It can tend to seem that school shootings are very common, and they’re much more common than they were, and it’s important to be concerned, but it’s also important to remind kids, overall, these things really are quite rare, and we’re all safe, we’re all okay,” Kendall said.

Even if a child is feeling anxious, they may not be able to explain why. They may feel overwhelmed or just sad.

“It can just look like general moodiness or irritability kind of feeling, being short with others, or wanting to stay in and not going anywhere,” said Kendall.

Some kids may also regress, like not being able to sleep alone or having accidents. Although things like school shootings or just threats of violence may be complicated and hard to talk about, Kendall said it’s vital for kids to be able to express their fears.

“It can be really tempting to just say let’s not talk about it, let’s just forget it,” Kendall said. “One of the most important things is just that open communication. What are you hearing? What questions do you have?”

Children tend to mirror adults’ reactions, Kendall said.

“It’s just important when responding to moderate our own feelings and our own thoughts, and, while we can certainly have our own frustrations, distress, anger, that we pay very close attention to what we’re saying around our kids,” Kendall said.

Still, kids may be scared, and that’s where families can step in to keep them calm.

“It’s also really important when these things come up to kind of reassure their safety. We do drills to be safe, and in this case, things worked just like they should have. Somebody spoke up when they saw something, and they went to the authorities and they put their plan in place,” Kendall said.

Overall, the most important thing: talk.

“I think for kids, things feel less scary when they talk about them,” Kendall said.

Although exposure to current events is very important, Kendall said it’s also important to limit their access to extensive coverage of school shootings or acts of violence. She said younger children may not understand it’s the same situation, and it may lead them to believe acts of violence are happening frequently.

“I think it’s really important to be mindful about what our children are exposed to. Certainly, we want them to have critical thinking and be aware of the world around them, but we need to limit media exposure when something like a school shooting happens and it plays again, and again and again,” Kendall said.

On top of that, access to social media can be harmful. News stations limit what’s seen due to graphic content, but social media doesn’t.

“Right now, in this age, kids see things in real time, instead of just the media that’s curated by the news. There’s almost an instant transfer of information onto social media that’s graphic, that’s unedited,” she said.

If your child is acting out of what’s normal, Kendall said it’s best to see a doctor. Stick with structure and routine when they seem to be struggling.

She said childhood anxiety is more present than most believe.

“Something I hear from a lot of younger people is: ‘I didn’t even know that was anxiety. I thought that was just living. I thought everyone felt like this. I thought it was normal to feel sick to my stomach every morning on the bus, or not be able to close my eyes at night without seeing scary things,’” Kendall said.

All in all, childhood anxiety is common, normal and valid.

“It’s been a very anxiety-provoking couple of years. Lots of uncertainty, lots of loss. Loss of loved ones, loss of experiences, and freedoms,” Kendall said.

Pediatricians are able to talk with children about mental health, including anxiety and depression.

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