School violence: An interview with a Mayo Clinic specialist

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School violence: An interview with a Mayo Clinic specialist

School violence — Get tips for being honest yet reassuring when talking to kids.

Photo of Michael Tiede, L.P.Michael Tiede, L.P.

News reports of school violence leave adults horrified, shaken and anxious. Imagine how they can affect young children, who may see frightening images repeatedly replayed on television but not fully understand them. Or teens, who may be faced with metal detector checks and unsettling thoughts about their own school's safety.

Here, Michael Tiede, L.P., a licensed psychotherapist for children and adolescents at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., explores how parents and other adults can talk to children of different ages about school violence, as well as what signs may indicate a child is at risk of committing violent acts.

Should adults simply tell children that school violence won't happen in their community?

That's probably not an appropriate message to convey. We've seen that school violence can happen virtually anywhere, even in schools that may seem extremely safe. Unfortunately, a message like this can also give children a false sense of security, and they may not be as vigilant about unsafe situations as they should be. And many children do worry that a shooting or other violent event may happen in their school, so you should validate and acknowledge their feelings. Blanket statements that it won't happen risk minimizing their fears and shutting down conversation.

How do you reassure children about school violence while acknowledging that it can happen?

You can focus on messages about safety. You can honestly tell children that school violence is unlikely to happen, that it's rare. And you can discuss safety measures that are in place to protect them at school. Talk to them about how school personnel, such as their teachers and principals, are trained to keep them safe. Let them know that schools take concerns about violence or safety very seriously. You can also help children feel a sense of control by teaching them to report concerns or incidents. Adolescents and teens can be empowered by learning conflict-resolution skills and participating in anti-violence programs.

If your child doesn't bring up the issue of school violence or express worries, should you just ignore it too?

It's usually up to the adult to initiate conversations about school violence. Just because your child isn't openly talking about school violence doesn't mean that he or she isn't worried about it. For one thing, younger children may not be able to verbalize their fear easily. They may act it out in behavior or play. And older children, who are notorious for clamming up around adults as it is, may be hesitant to raise serious or emotional issues. In fact, some children think about school violence more fatalistically than adults do. It's not uncommon to find out months after the news coverage ends that your child was very worried in the wake of a violent incident.

When is the best time to talk to children about school violence?

Too often, discussions arise only after an incident is reported in the news. But safety and school violence should be topics of family discussion through the various stages of childhood development. Don't reserve discussion only for times when a serious incident occurs.

How do you engage a young child in a conversation about school violence?

Young children, such as those in kindergarten through fifth grade, may have trouble understanding the concept of violence. Because of that, you need to talk to them in a way they can relate to. It may be a less direct approach. You can talk to them about being teased, what's happening on the school bus, about people being "mean," or if they're concerned about strangers coming to their school to hurt them or their friends or teachers.

What about talking to older children about school violence?

With older children, such as those in middle school or high school, you can talk about school violence in a more direct way — making sure it's appropriate for your particular child. You can ask them if they ever worry about school violence, for instance. You can ask them how they feel when school violence makes the news. With teenagers who may not be as open, you can ask them what their friends are talking about or how teachers are addressing school safety, as sort of a backdoor way to get them to talk about the issue.

When reports of school violence occur, what should you do for your children?

For younger children, the discussion should focus on safety and how adults are doing everything they can to protect them. With older children, you can help them understand what's happened. Reinforce the idea that serious school violence is rare. Also, without alarming them, remind them to be aware of possible signs of impending violence and to report any concerns to school authorities. And it's OK to let them know that you feel upset when you see violence in schools, too. But because a child will pick up on parental anxiety like a sponge, it's important to remain calm and reassuring.

Should children watch television news coverage of school violence incidents?

It depends on their age and developmental level. Young children, such as preschoolers, often interpret the news differently than adults do. For instance, some studies show that young children often don't realize that the same incident is constantly replayed on the news — they believe it's different incidences of violence, which can lead them to think that violence is common. Children of any age, and even adults, can have traumatic reactions to violent or shocking images, especially those that show frightened or injured school children. Watching footage from the scene of an incident can be too intense. Even older children should limit viewing of such news. Remind them that early news coverage may be inaccurate and sensationalistic because the facts aren't all known. Consider watching the news together so that you can discuss it.

How do you know if your child needs professional help coping with reports of school violence?

If you feel like you've tried to address the issue with your child but it's not helping his or her fears, or if you feel stuck yourself, consider consulting a mental health professional. Be alert for signs and symptoms of coping difficulties. Symptoms vary depending on developmental age but usually involve impairment in some aspect of their life, such as avoidance of situations or an inability to focus on homework. Other signs and symptoms may include:

  • Regression in behavior, such as a return to thumb sucking
  • Physical complaints, such as stomachaches or headaches
  • Reluctance to go to school
  • Drop in grades
  • Failure to complete homework
  • Sleep problems
  • Nightmares
  • Relationship problems

Keep in mind that symptoms may be subtle, not glaring. For instance, your child may not have nightmares every single night. And because it may be hard for parents to admit that their child needs professional help, you may find yourself explaining away symptoms or making excuses for them.

What kind of professional help is effective for coping with reports of school violence?

Often, this kind of anxiety can benefit from a type of psychotherapy known as cognitive behavior therapy, and it can be brief, usually just six to 14 sessions. In some situations, medications may help, but many times, anxiety can be treated effectively with behavioral methods that help children learn to cope with their fear and stress.

What if you have concerns about your own child's potential for committing school violence?

This is difficult because no parent wants to believe that their child is capable of violence. But getting professional help promptly may prevent problems from worsening. Some signs and symptoms that can indicate a potential for violence include:

  • A history of violence
  • Fighting
  • Bullying
  • Picking on younger children
  • Harming animals
  • Threats of harming people or animals
  • Access to weapons of violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Intense anger
  • Frequent loss of temper
  • Violent or overly aggressive behavior during sports
  • Depression
  • Thoughts of suicide

You can directly ask your child about their behavior and intentions. If he or she talks about hurting someone, ask if that's really their plan. Address the threat. If they look mad, ask them why. Ask how serious they are about hurting someone else or themselves. If you have concerns, take your child to a mental health professional as soon as possible for a thorough evaluation.

Is school violence really increasing or does it just seem that way?

School violence has always existed in some form or other. Playground fights and teasing have seemed almost a rite of passage for school children, although we know now that behavior like bullying and hazing can be very harmful. In fact, school children are more likely to be involved in fist fights or subjected to bullying or hazing than to school shootings. However, when school shootings do occur, they get a tremendous amount of publicity, which promotes the misconception that they occur more often than they actually do. In reality, children are more likely to be victims of homicide outside of school. And because many schools have adopted safety procedures, school violence can often be prevented.

How can parents take an active role in addressing school violence?

Learn about the safety measures and training programs your child's school has in place. Talk to school officials and educators and attend school board meetings. Talk to other parents to discuss any concerns. Consider arranging school or community group presentations by local police departments or McGruff the Crime Dog. Get involved in the Be Safe and Sound Campaign for safer schools, through the National Crime Prevention Council.

Last Updated: 10/25/2006
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