Morning Zen

Innocence Lost: Tooth Fairies and School Lockdowns

November 23, 2015

Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Eliot Brenner

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The Truth About the Tooth Fairy

My 9 year-old daughter ran into the kitchen, shouting, “Mommy is the tooth fairy. Look, it’s Mommy’s handwriting on this note.”

I looked away from her. I am a lousy liar and I knew that if I looked my daughter in the eye I would have to tell the truth.

She persisted: “Mommy is the tooth fairy, isn’t she?”

She had me. I put my index finger to my lips. “Shhh,” I said, “don’t let your brother and sister hear you.” At 8 years old and 4 years old, they did not need to have their bubble burst any sooner than necessary.

Later that night, as I tucked my daughter into bed, she had more questions for me. “Does this mean that for all of my friends their parents are the tooth fairy, too?”

“Yes,” I replied. “But I think it would be best if you kept that secret and let them find out on their own. ”

She agreed. That evening she had grown wiser and more mature. Now she was keeping an “adult” secret.

I realized that night that my daughter had begun the process of losing her innocence. Next would be Santa Clause, then the Easter Bunny. There was no turning back.

Little did I know just how quickly her innocence would unravel.

Our First Lockdown
A month later my wife and I received text messages from our children’s elementary school. A series of ‘credible threats’ were made toward several schools in our town. All 17 public schools serving 10,000 students were placed in lockdown.

My wife and I waited for additional information. All we could think of was Sandy Hook. After two hours, we were told that although schools were still on high alert, all students were safe and would be dismissed early. Several schools had received bomb threats and threats of someone showing-up with a gun.

How are our children doing, we wondered?  How would we explain this to them?

Of course, being mental health professionals, we were well versed in the recommended advice following any scary or potentially traumatic situation:

  • Ask your child for her understanding of what happened.
  • Ask your child how she is feeling. 
  • Reassure her that teachers, police, and parents will be there to keep her safe
  • Make sure she does not repeatedly overhear television news, which can inadvertently prolong the event or make her feel as if the event is happening again.

We knew all of this, but we still weren’t sure how our children – who did not know about the tragedy of Sandy Hook – would react to the lockdown.

The Reunion
When my wife picked-up our son and daughter at school, their reactions could not have been more different. He was nonplussed and his mood was upbeat because he got out of school early; she was shaky, tense, and preoccupied.

At home, my son was well aware of how frightened some of his classmates were, but he seemed unaffected by the event. My daughter, on the other had, repeatedly retold the event, emphasizing how she was “shaking for two hours until the police came.”

How, I wondered, could my daughter who just stopped believing in the tooth fairy, make sense of someone wanting to bomb her school or shoot her classmates? How could we, as parents, help her make sense all of this?

“Why would anyone do this?” my daughter asked.

“Because,” I said, “there are some people in the world who do bad things. And that is why the school went into lockdown today – to make sure that you will be safe if someone tries to hurt you.”

She listened, asked more questions, and we tried to reassure her that the world was safe and that the adults in her life would do everything possible to protect her.

The Aftermath
As parents, we reassure our children who are facing school lockdowns that they are safe, but we know that is not entirely true.

Because lockdowns are relatively new, we don’t know much about their lingering effects on children, parents, and teachers. Following a 2014 school shooting, a New York Times Headline read “In The Age Of School Shootings, Lockdown Is The New Fire Drill.” But is it? Growing-up in the Midwest, I endured plenty of fire and tornado drills and warnings – evacuating the school or kneeling against the wall with my classmates while waiting for the siren to end. These just don’t seem the same as the uncertainty and horror of a murderer with a bomb or a gun.

The day after our school lockdown, children were offered access to crisis counselors. Did the children that most needed support see the counselors? When children did see counselors, was it helpful? More importantly, is offering counseling the best way to help fearful children following a lockdown?

It would be reassuring if we could turn to the research literature to help us design school lockdown procedures and mitigate their potentially traumatic effects. Unfortunately, there is almost no mental health research to guide our efforts. One qualitative study of middle and high school teachers found that while teachers had a thorough knowledge of lockdown procedures, they were not trained in how to adjust their implementation of procedures to account for “the human response to crisis.”

Given the paucity of research about the effects on children’s mental health of school lockdowns, it behooves us as parents and citizens to advocate for greater resources for this area.

For a week following my children’s school lockdown, police roamed the hallways and playgrounds. My daughter was nervous and did not sleep well. My wife and I continued to reassure her. Within two weeks, my daughter’s nervousness had passed. But how about the other 10,000 children in our town?

The Future
This month, my daughter stopped believing in the tooth fairy and experienced her first school lockdown. She started to grapple with the idea that somewhere out there, someone might be trying to hurt her. This month, she surrendered a bit of childhood innocence.

As a parent, I was powerless in the face of someone threatening to harm my children. I did what I could to support my children following a potential trauma, but I do not know if it was enough. And I have no idea about how other children in the community are faring.

Like fire and tornado drills, lockdowns aren’t going away. We may be powerless, but we must not forget our responsibilities as citizens to advocate for research into finding better ways to mitigate the traumatic effects of lockdowns on the mental health of our children, parents, and teachers.

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eliot brennerDr. Eliot Brenner is a nonprofit executive with 15+ years’ experience leading program operations and change management in child welfare, mental health, healthcare, and philanthropy.  He is also a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice. Most recently, Dr. Brenner was Type 1 Diabetes Program Director at the Helmsley Charitable Trust, which is the largest private foundation funder of type 1 diabetes research, treatments, and support programs.  At the Trust, he led staff and strategy for a portfolio of 200+ grants totaling more than $200 million. Prior to joining the Trust, Dr. Brenner was Deputy Executive Director at Casey Family Services, the direct service agency of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. At Casey Family Services, he directed all program operations and training, and led a staff of 290 that served more than 4,000 children annually. Dr. Brenner also worked in the public sector, where he was Chief Consulting Psychologist for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. He has published peer-reviewed articles in children’s services and mental health. Dr. Brenner currently serves on the Children’s Mental Health Network Advisory Council.

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