Helping Kids Cope with the Fear of Violence

By Stephanie Filio

Helping Kids Cope with the Fear of ViolenceEvery generation seems to have their own approach to protecting children against violence on TV. In the 1980s, parents were advised to keep their children from watching the news and MTV. In the ’90s, parent groups scolded every television station and major brand for aggressive content. Though the methods were different, the goal was the same: to shield children from distress caused by viewing violence on TV.

Is it even possible to shield students from violence anymore?

With the rapid development of technology in the new century, the question is no longer whether children should see violence, it is what kind of violence is appropriate for different age ranges.

Technological advances have brought us to a place of unlimited access with little control. Our children are seeing more violence than generations in the past did, and the fact and fiction of brutality are blurred in their world. They know what a mass shooting is; they know that death occurs unexpectedly. They see violent scenes in movies, commercials, games, and internet videos, often without the knowledge and support of their parents as a buffer.

What will be the long-term effects of the stress students feel from this exposure to media violence? And how do we help kids cope with the violence they see?

Know the Signs of Anxiety

Fear of violence is ultimately rooted in a fear of not being safe. After exposure to violence, students recognize that the victim could just as easily have been them, their parent, or a friend. The settings for the graphic news that students see could easily be their school or another public place they visit.

Anxious thoughts breed anxious actions, and a student focused on violence can experience serious physiological effects. It is important to see the signs of anxiety in students. Sometimes students are vocal about their fears and predictably emotional or moody. Sometimes they have headaches or abrupt stomach issues. But other times the signs are masked by behaviors that indicate something bubbling below the surface. Your school’s tiered levels of support will help you identify students who might be manifesting fear:

  • Truant students withdrawing from school
  • Students who have suddenly become complacent with their grades
  • Aggressively behaving students with multiple disciplinary infractions
  • Students who miss class to see the counselor every day and then barely talk within the office walls
  • Students who stay after school every day but don’t engage in class

All these students have reasons motivating their behavior, even if they do not understand themselves what those reasons are. Students who show up on tiered needs lists can almost always benefit from a close mentor peeling back the layers of emotion. In time, and after speaking with family and teachers, you might find that the student has been obsessively discussing a recent violent event in the news. You might see increasingly violent student journal entries. You might hear about domestic violence in the home. Once you have the root of the anxiety, you can begin to support the student and provide resources for community services at home.

Get It Out

Allowing students to recognize and discuss their emotions is the first step in helping them let go of the emotions. So often our society emphasizes the goal of always being happy, no matter what. In reality, we have a wide range of emotions that serve important purposes.

I’m going to say something a little controversial here: let students be sad. Without getting too crazy, I will also say, let kids cry if they need to cry.

Part of the venting process is de-escalation. De-escalation is not minimizing feelings, but rather acknowledging feelings and then bringing the person back to also acknowledge the rest of the world. When we allow someone to vent, we must listen without bias and without interrupting. Then we can start to usher thoughts around the bend to return the person to the present.

I Am Safe

Sometimes people experiencing anxiety are just in need of a reminder that their life is not as out of control as they feel. I often ask students directly, “Are you safe right now?”

Sometimes they say yes, and sometimes they say things like, “Well, yeah, but my dad could come up here and try to take me!”

I redirect them again: “But right this second, in this room where you and I are, are you safe?”

Sometimes I have to redirect the student to the present moment several times, and other times I realize that the student needs to be reassured. In these moments, I have the student repeat this mantra after me:

I am safe.
I am breathing. I am aware. I am alive. I am not in imminent danger.
I am safe.

During the process, I am collecting data and noting any pertinent information that will be useful moving forward. I may call home to follow up with any explanations of fear and to start connecting the network of people in the child’s life. In school, a plan of action might include:

  • Reminders to check in with the student
  • Emailing teachers about sending the student to a counselor when the student is feeling anxious
  • Providing the student with fidgets or other relaxation tools in the counselor’s office
  • Practicing breathing and other mindfulness techniques
  • Allowing the student to visit a counselor for quiet time during particularly rambunctious times of the day

Coping Moving Forward

Student Coping PlanI don’t know that there is a time of innocence anymore, a time before children are exposed to violence. At the end of the day, the best bet may be to simply help children learn to cope with the ever-present fear associated with disorder and turbulence.

Continuing to work with our students to uncover their stories is the first step. Helping kids stay mindful will reduce rumination on the violence they see around them and remind them to simply put one foot in front of the other instead of worrying about the entirety of the marathon.

BONUS! Download the Student Coping Plan, a free printable page from A Practical Guide to Mental Health & Learning Disorders for Every Educator. Use the worksheet to help students establish provisions for times when they feel upset or overwhelmed.

Stephanie FilioStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

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