Are we doing enough to help kids manage their fears?: Fear and stress after a school lockdown

police lights

“We’ve been on lockdown!” shouted a flushed child rushing to our afterschool van. “I was so scared,” the next child mumbled, looking over her shoulder, shaking. Several police cars with lights flashing were parked in the street.

This was the scene that met us on an otherwise normal March afternoon when my afterschool program’s carpool arrived at two elementary schools who share borders. A local domestic dispute had turned into a gunman in the same small neighborhood as the schools. We picked up twenty-four children who attend these affected schools, and they all rushed to our vans, some looking as if they were being pursued.

As my staff and I listened to stories shared at the back of our vehicles, the fears palpable, we realized our normal afternoon learning module would have to wait. The kids wanted, and needed, to come together as a group to talk about their fears. Sometimes it is more important to set aside your own agenda to be in the moment with the situation before you.

When we arrived at Fidgets2Widgets, we gave everyone a chance to share and be heard. Along with the day’s scare, many scary times of their pasts were revisited. The kids listened carefully to each other recount their individual reactions to the same event. No one was interrupted or disrespected, and everyone remained thoughtful and attentive. Just like anyone who has experienced trauma, the children needed to process it by telling the story over and over.

Eventually the storytelling slowed, but no one made a move toward the computers. There is a natural and organic saturation point when people have told their story and processed it enough so that it is no longer traumatizing, but that’s only one part of the process.

It became clear that though the kids had taken time to process their fears together, there was still more work that needed to be done. It was time to release the stress.

We talked about how animals release their fear. They tremble and shake and run and make noise. A scared deer runs away with frantic speed, but when she’s no longer afraid, she calms, looks around, and goes back to eating. And so we practiced doing the same.

We shook on legs made of spaghetti and trembled. We ran about and shook our heads. Then we stopped. We breathed. And then we were…done. Done with the fear, and ready to move on to what comforts us. We talked about what we enjoy doing most, and then the kids rushed forward to do those things—building with friends in Minecraft, horsing around on the Jungle Jumparoo, taking the Oculus Rift for a ride!

When the day finished and the last kids had been picked up by their parents, we took a moment to breathe. This experience made us realize that though most schools are equipped to institute precautions against an armed intruder, they aren’t always prepared to handle the fallout the stress of such a threat puts on the young minds in their care. When the threat has passed, it’s tempting to want to put it behind us and move on to regularly scheduled schooling.

But trauma advisors and school counselors exist for a reason. Why did our afterschool group come to our carpool still shaking with the release of their endorphins?

There are a few likely reasons.

  • The threat happened in the afternoon, so there wasn’t much opportunity for aftercare.
  • There are too many kids and not enough trained adults.
  • Evidence of the threat’s reality were still present (cop cars and their lights).

Whatever the reason, it highlights how important it is to know how to address our children’s fears after the threat has passed. As adults, we might want to rush the process with a well-meaning “It’s over, it’s done. You aren’t hurt. Please stop crying.” But this skips the actual processing part of the process and jumps right to the release.

When people are given permission to process their grief or trauma fully, they are able to move past the event without any long lasting wounding. Our goal at Fidgets2Widgets was to create space to fully process the incident so that it would not leave any lasting negative impressions on the kids’ lives.

We need to assure kids that their feelings are valid and that it’s all right to feel them. As parents, caregivers, and teachers, it’s our job to teach the children in our lives how to process fear and trauma. We won’t always be there to prevent it, after all. Giving them the tools to do it themselves is one of the best gifts we can give them.

The world can be a scary place, but as one of our Widgetarians said, “It’s good to feel safe again!”

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