Ensuring Children's Sense of Safety

By FCPS & Fairfax County Government
March 19, 2021

This week, a horrific act of violence occurred in Atlanta. It was just one of many acts of violence, harassment, and hate targeting the Asian-American community that have risen sharply since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The current climate of anger, hate, and fear in our country is having a significant impact on many children and adults. Feelings of uncertainty and lack of safety are particularly heightened for communities and families struggling to understand and cope with hate-based violence, as well as discriminatory or threatening actions or speech. 

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) provides these suggestions for parents to reassure children and help them feel safe. 

It is important for parents to understand the effect of stressors and adversity on life functioning. Experiencing stress and adversity can contribute to both internal symptoms (such as anxiety, depression, grief, fear, anger, and isolation) and external behaviors (such as reactivity, aggression, and behavior problems). Children may be concerned about actions or statements that they hear or see in the news. Recent events in their communities or reported in the media may cause children to fear that they or their family and friends may be targeted because of their race, cultural background, or other identifying trait.

The following represent concerning reactions that you should monitor in your children.

  • Isolation or refusal to attend or participate in school.
  • Withdrawal from peers or social situations.
  • Withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities at school or in the community.
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits.
  • Reports of bullying, harassment, or intimidation in school, in the community, or on social media.

You can promote a sense of safety for children by doing the following.

  • Set limits around television and social media viewing, as too much exposure can increase fears.
  • Provide a consistent structure and routine for children, as this helps to generate a sense of psychological safety.
  • Provide a safe place for your children to talk with you about their fears or concerns.
  • Encourage healthy and safe coping strategies.
  • Encourage physical exercise, play, and other diversions to help them relax.
  • Emphasize that there are many adults in this country who care deeply about them and who will do all they can to ensure that children and their families are safe.
  • Maintain contact with those adults in your children’s lives that help guide them and that may provide a safe place to talk about feelings and reactions, such as  teachers, coaches, counselors, faith leaders, or other supportive adults.
  • Seek help immediately from the school counselor, school psychologist, school social worker, or other mental health professional if your child is experiencing strong emotional reactions or if you have noticed significant changes in their behavior.
  • Immediately report any instances of bullying, harassment, or discrimination that your child observes or experiences to school administrators.
  • Report hate crimes to local law enforcement and consider sharing with the Southern Poverty Law Center afterwards.

Adult reactions can influence children’s reactions. Children look to adults to determine how to respond and cope with stress. You can model appropriate coping strategies in the following ways.

  • Communicate with loved ones about feelings and healthy coping strategies.
  • Take care of your own physical and mental health.
  • Make time to do things you enjoy with family and friends in your community.
  • Access school and community resources.
  • Help others in your community by referring them to helpful resources.

Reinforce and focus on your children's strengths and promote their sense of belonging. All children and families bring unique skills, strengths, and knowledge to our society. Build and emphasize those strengths in the following ways.

  • Help your children find others who allow them to share their knowledge about their origins, customs, and culture.
  • Identify positive activities that can help your children feel they are heard. For example, students can write letters to a local leader expressing their hopes and desires for the community.
  • Identify activities your children can engage in to show support and solidarity for each other and for their local and school communities.

Ensure that your children are not participating—whether intentionally or inadvertently—in any harassment or bullying of others. It is important to be aware of and honest about our own children’s behavior and stop behaviors that perpetuate inaccurate perceptions, racism, bias, and harm. Reinforce that such behavior (including speech) is not okay, and help your child identify the source of their feelings or behavior and why it is wrong. Teach them appropriate positive alternatives.

Remember that at any time, should you or your children struggle with feelings of stress, please reach out to your school and community organizations for support. While many families may fear drawing attention to their struggles, there are individuals and organizations who want to help. Talk to representatives of your school or local cultural or faith organizations.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis, text HOME to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor, call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or call 911.

The Healthy Minds Blog shares information related to youth mental health and wellness for an audience of parent, educators and community-based providers. Articles include tips and strategies for increasing wellness and resiliency, as well as fostering success at home, at school and in the community.

The Healthy Minds Blog is a collaborative project between Fairfax County Public Schools and the Prevention Unit of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. It is part of the Healthy Minds Fairfax (see below) initiative, designed to support emotional wellness in youth and families.

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