Helping Parents Prepare Their Little Children to Feel Safe about School Lockdown Drills (and Other Scary Stuff) – by Judith Simon Prager, PhD
Truly, it can be a very scary world out there. You don’t have to be a helicopter parent to want with all your heart to protect your children, to keep them safe from harm and also from fear, even from fearful thoughts. In today’s world, we all have them. Children have always imagined scary things, had bad dreams, suffered monsters under the bed. These days, they are also steeped in video violence of all kinds.
So we limit screen time, try to shield them from the news. We search out those few movies that empower their spirits or bring them joy.
Then comes time to go to school, which likely includes lockdown (or as some emergency personnel call them, the friendlier shelter-in-place) drills and exposure to the knowledge that there are dangers out there.
Over the past 16 years, since I co-authored (with Judith Acosta, LISW) the books, The Worst is Over: What to Say When Every Moment Counts, and Verbal First Aid: Help Your Kids Heal From Fear and Pain—And Come Out Strong, I have been training doctors, nurses, first responders, teachers, and parents how to talk in medical emergencies to set a course—physically and emotionally—for healing. I have taught at medical centers across the country and around the world.
That led to my having been asked by teachers at an array of international schools to help them know what to say to kids about “lockdown drills” in such a way that won’t scare or scar them.
What follows is a scenario that offers some suggestions you might use to respond to your children’s fears when they have been involved in a lockdown or secure space drill. After that, there are sections that provide contextual discussions for the various approaches offered, so that, should you want to come up with your own ideas, knowing your child best, you’ll have a framework to guide you.
So let’s explore some ways we can give our children tools for dealing with the anxieties and threats, real or imagined, that they face, admittedly much too early in life.
Okay. You’re the Mom or Dad.
Your child comes home from school and is sad, frightened, upset, and/or worried.
You: (saying something welcoming, something about: )How was school today? What did you do? What did you like? What didn’t you like? You give them room to sort out their feelings. You listen. Maybe today is the day they say they had to all go into a closet or back room and be very quiet for a while. The teachers said it was a “drill.”
Child: Why do we have to do a drill? I don’t like it.
You: What about it don’t you like?
Child: Being quiet. Being in the closet. And… [Eric] said it was because someone with a gun could come in and try to kill us and we had to hide. And I got really, really scared.
You: Oooo. I can imagine that would be scary. Come here and let me hug you, if you like. (If they’d rather not, then you can just get down to their eye level and keep the conversation going) So, you don’t like being in the closet and being quiet. (Repeating what they say tells them they’re heard, which is really important for keeping rapport going.) Probably everybody, even the teacher doesn’t like it a lot. And then there’s the scary part.
Child: (Nods) Why do we have to do a dumb drill? Is somebody going to shoot us?
You: Here are some things you should know. First of all, even though we might hear about it when something like this happens in a school, there are thousands and thousand and thousands of schools where it never happens and it’s never going to happen. So nothing bad is likely to happen at our school. The school is all set up to keep you safe and the principal and the teachers know just what to do if someone comes in who doesn’t belong there. They have all kinds of ideas and plans to protect your school and keep anyone bad away. They’re there to take care of you.
Second, you’re practicing to be safe. That’s really important. The good guys, the ones who are heroes out in the world, they practice their safety skills all the time! The firefighters and police and people defending our country. They do their drills over and over. You know why? Because when you practice something enough, then you don’t even have to think about it. They practice and practice their drills so that they know how to act and how to take cover when there’s danger. Because they’ve practiced, just like you. What you are doing in a drill is you’re practicing, just like them. When you practice something often enough, it becomes automatic. You do it without even having to think about it. You just do it, which is exactly what you’re supposed to do. You know?
Child: But I don’t know what to do. I’m just a kid.
You: In our life right here on our block we practice all the time, like stopping at a corner and looking both ways before we step into the street. You do that now, but when you were younger, you’d just run to the corner and almost step into the street without looking and I’d have to yell “Stop!” because you hadn’t practiced looking both ways. Right?
You: Now, inside your wonderful brain is the program that tells you to stop and look before stepping into the street. You practiced and practiced that and now that’s automatic, isn’t it? And it keeps you safe. Your brain tells you not to just go running out into the street. Because you practiced stopping at the corner so often. So the school wants you to practice being safe even though you probably won’t need it.
Child: But it’s so boring and it’s hard to be quiet.
You: Here’s a funny thing you didn’t know. Next time you see Grandpa and Grandma, you ask them about how when they were your age and in school everyone was afraid of a giant bomb from a rocket or an airplane, a bomb from the bad guys! So they had to practice hiding under their desks! Imagine that. They didn’t like it, and it sure made them scared, but when the school said, “drill,” they all hid. Climbed right under their desks and stayed there until they were told they could come out. And you know what? There never was a bomb, but practicing made them ready if they needed to be. And you do fire drills in school, and there are hardly ever fires in schools because of the drills and safety checks. So practicing and having a plan keep people safe. Even if it’s boring.
Child: But it’s scary. I felt really sick because I’m afraid of someone with a gun.
You: What does it feel like?
Child: Like I’m going to throw up. Like I want to cry.
You: Wow that must be very uncomfortable.
You: A lot of people feel that way sometimes, did you know that?
You: Yes, even grownups. And I’ll teach you a few tricks that could make it better. But first I want to tell you this (looking deeply into the child’s eyes, hugging, on lap, maybe). You’re safe. You’re here with me now. And I love you. Right now. And when you’re in school, and when you’re scared, and when you come back home to me, just like this, I’m right here, loving you.
Let me tell you why you feel so weird when you’re scared. There are two parts to your brain. One feels your feelings, like when you’re scared or angry or happy. The other part thinks, so you can figure out what to do about those popping-up feelings. First you feel scared, or sad, or really lonely, then you have to think about what to do about it. Like when you get angry and you have to count to ten!
When you get scared, you sometimes forget to take good breaths. And when you forget to breathe strong breaths, your brain, which is hungry for the good oxygen you breathe, gets worried, too. It thinks something is wrong. It thinks it’s supposed to panic and get you ready to run away! Even the smart part, the thinking part.
And (you, the parent, could picture this, tell it like a story) So here’s Mr. Brain not getting enough of the oxygen it needs, it panics and decides it has to get your body ready for a fight. What do you think of that?
Your heart is probably feeling like it’s racing as it sends out energy and blood to your arms and legs so you can run. But you’re not going to run, so there you are, just wondering why you feel like this, why your muscles feel tight. Your body takes energy away from your belly because it’s busy with other stuff, so you feel those butterflies there. Without enough fresh oxygen in your brain you might feel dizzy. Quite an awful way to feel, as you just said. You felt that today.
But you can tell that part of your brain, the part that does the thinking, that you’re safe and okay. You know how?
You: By taking some good, oxygen-filled breaths, so nice and big that you fill your belly. That will tell the thinking part of your brain that you’re all right, that things are under control, so your brain can calm the feeling part and the rest of your body.
So, here’s a trick that you can do anywhere, any time. Imagine that you’re blowing out candles on your birthday cake. (Remember your last birthday? Wasn’t that fun?) You could even put up one finger and pretend it’s a candle you’re blowing out. And then when you’re good and empty of air, your body and brain want to fill up again with oxygen, so you’ll take a lovely breath in. And your brain starts to feel calm again. And when the brain is calm, your body can calm down, too. Like magic. Do it with me.
How about if we do some good breathing now, just for practice? Here, blow out the candle on my finger. Good. Now fill yourself up with rich oxygen and imagine the air going up to your brain and reporting that you are safe and your body can remain calm. You can even smile the next time you “blow out” and feel your shoulders relaxing down a little, too.
Child: But that stupid drill makes me scared. Of a bad guy with a gun.
You: That’s why we practice being safe. Here’s what you can do while you’re in there. Of course you’re going to always listen to the teacher during a drill, right?
Child: Yes. Right. But they don’t talk to us and we can’t talk to each other.
You: Well, the teacher will give you instructions and then you’ll have to be quiet. And here are some things you can do while you’re in that space and can’t talk to your friends. In your mind you can remember that you’re going to come home to me, and I’ll tell you again that you’re safe. You can picture exactly what it’s going to be like when you get back here. You could think about what you’d like to eat. What would you picture? You can look around and tell me. [Pause] You can picture it just the way it is right now, imagine that you’re back here and we’re talking like this or maybe cooking dinner together.
Another thing I hope you’ll do is notice what you feel when you’re anxious, when you’re scared during a drill, and bring the feelings back to me. Just store them in your memory and we can talk about them when you get home. What does your worry or your scared feel like?
While we’re talking about all this, do you think some of the other kids were feeling scared today just like you were? What do you think would be some good things you might say to them to help them feel better after the drill is over?
And you can always remember that I love you now, I’ll love you tomorrow and always. You can put that good feeling in your pocket and bring it out whenever you need it.
One more thing. During the next drill, you could pretend in your mind that you’re playing hide and seek! And you have to hide and be as still as you can so you don’t get found! And because you can hide and be quiet so well, when the game is over, you win!
(Perhaps at this point the child is somewhat reassured, although certainly you’ll be going through some of these thoughts and maybe others again and again as the days go by.)
Child: I still don’t like to do the drill.
You: You know we do a lot of things to stay safe every day. You wear your helmet when you ride your bike, not because you expect to fall, but just in case. To be safe. We wear seat belts in the car, just in case. But we don’t expect bad things to happen. Our “just in case” practices mean that we won’t have to think about those worries at other times. The better you practice anything, the better you get at it. Like drawing, or riding your bike.
We can go on about life, love each other (hugs here, if they’re up for it) and know that the people in charge are taking care of it and we’re doing our part! That’s your part. To do what the grownups in your life tell you to keep you safe. When you do it, we all can feel better, proud and happy.
At this point you can help them to move some of that adrenaline from their bodies by allowing them to exercise, dancing or taking a walk with them.
So it’s in your hands. If the children can feel safe, instead of being traumatized by it, they can remember events and any scare as a time of rescue and maybe even as a time of their own courage.
Final note: It’s very valuable to help children feel that we have things under control. Another aspect of that is letting them feel that they know what’s coming, so they have a bit of a sense of control, themselves. Using some of the techniques in the dialogue above, you can prepare them for drills in school, even if they haven’t gone through one yet, but have heard about them and felt frightened in anticipation of the unknown.
Preparing for a Drill
You might say something like,
You know how you like to know what to expect when the day is going to be interrupted with something different from most days. Like before you go to the dentist or on a trip to someplace new, and we talk about it and tell you what’s going to happen so you’re not surprised.
Children can feel a sense of mastery over the situation instead of being at the whim of what comes next. In the adult world, things they don’t understand may involve them and they don’t have independent agency to decide these things. Telling them there is a plan and repeating—they may ask you again and again to tell them about what the trip will be like—gives them a sense of mastery, less disorientation. We all like to know what to expect as much as possible.
So the teacher will tell you when it’s time to do the drill and you’ll follow the instructions and do a good job. You’re part of a team, performing a task and doing it just right so when you all work together, your team can feel good about the good job you did together, listening, being quiet and cooperating so well.
And, again, our attitude is contagious. So as we find ways to have automatic programs (Mental Rehearsal) and a sense of control (through the breath and knowing that we’re there for a reason and have everything we need to help share with our children a sense of calm, even in a storm), our presence, which is the real gift, will reflect that and help us help them.
Update from Dr. Prager since this article came out. As important as parents’ conversations with children about troubling issues are, she also reminds us of the powerful influence teachers can have on the emotional as well as physical safety of their young charges. It presents tremendous challenge and responsibility to them in these times. How teachers talk about lockdown drills and the terrifying threat of a violent intruder can make all the difference in a child’s imagination between nightmares and fears, and a sense of safety and trust. Dr. Prager has developed and shared a program containing some strategies that she offers to teachers and faculty to help the teachers themselves feel safer and provide them with new ways to think and speak to kids about the scary stuff. Their job is a hard one. The goal is to help us use preparation, practice, and perspective to lean towards the idea of safety so that we can all go on with our lives in more comfortable, creative ways. If you’d like Dr. Prager to speak at your school, please contact your principal. She is reachable at: firstname.lastname@example.org
To read more of Judith Simon Prager approaches with kids click the links below:
Judith Simon Prager, PhD www.Judithprager.com
About Judith Simon Prager, PhD
Judith has been invited around the world and across the US to present and teach the Verbal First Aid™ protocol she co-developed. She was brought to China after a devastating earthquake, to Borneo’s medical university, and she has often taught graduates at the European School of Osteopathy. She has been a consultant to or consulted with a number of medical centers, including Cedars-Sinai, Children’s Hospital of Orange County and New York University Rusk Center.
Judith’s deep belief in the power of words and images has found itself in her most recent co-authored books, The Worst is Over: What To Say when Every Moment Counts (deemed “The ‘bible’ for crisis communication” by The International Journal of Emergency Mental Health) and Verbal First Aid—Help Your Kids Heal From Fear and Pain and Come out Strong. She has also written a picture book for children: Owie-Cadabra’s Verbal First Aid for Kids: A Somewhat Magical Way to Help You and Your Friends Heal.
All those books reflect on how words and images can heal the mind, body, and spirit.
She has a BA and MA in English Language and Literature and a PhD in Psychology, with a private practice in Los Angeles.
She has appeared on Good Morning America and PBS’s literary program, Between the Lines. She is a multiple-awarding winning instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program with her husband, Harry Youtt.
Most recently she has been training teachers at international schools in Los Angeles about How to Talk to Kids About Lockdown Drills without scaring or scaring them.