When your teenager is afraid to go to school


father and teen


Yesterday, I was having a conversation with a mom who gets paid by the hour. A few hours into her workday, the women’s daughter had called from her high school experiencing anxiety and asked mom to pick her up early. “I just can’t walk to my class in the portable,” she told her mom. “I’m too scared. I just can’t.”

This family lives about 30 miles away from Parkland. In Florida, news of the Parkland shooting has been non-stop. Not only is it on television, in print and on the radio, but social media has made the images and fears real for many high school students.

This mom told me she felt conflicted.   She worried that by picking her daughter would lead to repeat behavior. But at the same time, she understood her daughter’s fear. That same morning, my husband had told me about his co-worker whose daughter felt too anxious to go to her high school. This mom had also had to pick her daughter up early from school. She decided to take her daughter to a therapist.

For teenagers in Florida, and probably the rest of the country, this shooting is scary, particularly because social media makes it very real. Within minutes after the Parkland shooting, my son knew every detail. Through group text messages and Snapchat posts of his friends at the school, he knew what was happening in real time, even before the news stations arrived. The experience taught me as a parent, today’s teenagers are informed in a way we never imagined they would be. They well aware of the horrific events going on, including the gory details, whether or not we want them to know.

Around the country, there have been threats at numerous other high schools in the aftermath of the shooting. The police are on high alert, but parents are left trying to figure out how to keep our kids nerves calm and what to do when a teenager is too afraid to go to school, or stay there once they arrive.

I consulted parenting expert Harry H. Harrison, author of several best-selling parenting books including Father to Son and Father to Daughter.

Q. How do you handle a teenagers real fear of going to school and being shot?
A. First, make sure your teenager knows the Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, is in jail.  Next, talk to them about what to do in a shooting situation like this. You want to give them skills to handle an emergency situation so they feel empowered.
Q. Should you let your teenager stay home from school if you see he or she is  experiencing anxiety?
A. If they miss school one or two days that’s understandable. But they have to face their fears. It’s part of being an adult and the adult world is filled with good and bad situations. We want to raise our kids to be successful in an adult world that can be strange and cold.  My message is you are not raising a 13 or 14-year old, you are raising a future adult.  It’s the perfect time to give your kids courage that they can face their fears.  You want to raise kids to face the adult world and unfortunately this is the world now.  Teach them what to do if a shooter walks into their school. Give them skills to handle the situation. It’s not time to retreat. It’s time to be courageous and go to school.

Q. What would you say to the parent whose teenager now wants to be homeschooled?

A.  Anything that delays maturation of a teen is a bad idea. If you let them stay home because they are afraid , when are they going to get over it?  After their senior year, when they still don’t have enough strength to face the world?

Q. Should parents initiate conversations with their teens about the shooting?

A.  Parents should ask, “What think about what’s going on in Florida?”  If your teen says “that crazy guy did something awful” and walks off, there is no use filling his brain with fear. If  he wants to talk about it, talk about it. Between ages 15 and 18 teens get reassurance from talking about things. When they are  younger they just want to know if they are safe. I wouldn’t force to them to talk about the shooting, especially if they don’t’ seem scared, but it is okay to say “I am here to talk if you need to.”

Q. Should you encourage your teenager who is afraid to go to school to get involved in the action some Florida teenagers and Parkland survivors are initiating?

A. Yes. This can be a huge lesson in courage. Encourage them to participate in rallies and demonstrations… everything but back out of the world and retreat in fear.

Q. What if parents are fearful? Should they hide it from their teenagers?

A. The best thing a parent can do is go into a room and come out when they are calm to talk to their teenagers. If they are scared to death, their teen will be scared to death. If they are calm and collected, the odds are their teen will be too.  It’s incumbent on parents to not be so terrified they can’t be there for their child.
For more tips on talking to your teenager about school safety and gun violence, this video on Cheddar.com with Parents Magazine editor should help:


Harry H. Harrison Jr
Parenting Expert
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