Guiding Children Through Difficult Times

Posted by Debbie Gibbs on 11/24/15 5:03 PM

When disturbing world news hits home, how do you answer your child’s questions? Reassuring your child isn’t always easy, especially if you are upset by the events yourself. Here are some thoughts from Lowell’s head of school, Debbie Gibbs, sent to parents just a few days after the Paris attacks.

November 16, 2015

Dear Parents,

With the recent events this past week, first in Beirut and then in Paris, we are reminded about how fragile life is, how complicated the world is, and how challenging it is to help children grow up with a sense of safety, hope, optimism, and empowerment. I write to you to offer you some thoughts and resources for guiding children through difficult times.

Peter Baily, the Executive Director of the Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools (AIMS), our accrediting organization, sent out a letter to heads of independent schools in the area Saturday. I thought his perspective and advice was very helpful. I shared it with the faculty and staff at Lowell, but I thought I would share this excerpt with you, too.

Paris is surely a high-profile target, and it seems clear that the attacks were carefully coordinated for maximum effect.  Unfathomable violence can occur anywhere, and it does, with stunning regularity. At the same time, right now, I’m particularly mindful of our schools and families in Washington DC, which is, like Paris, a world city, and I imagine that security in some areas has been intensified. It’s a time of strain and concern, and particularly for those of us who are charged with caring for children and helping them to make sense of the world around them and to grow into confident and decent young adults.

As we seek to help our students reflect on the events in Paris in ways that are appropriate to their own age and developmental stages, I hope we can take our lead from our children themselves, and the questions they will have. We can offer no definitive answers for why something like this happens, but we can offer assurances that our students are surrounded by many caring adults who take all reasonable precautions to ensure everyone’s safety. We can offer opportunities for conversation and respectful discussion, and we can attend to the facts as they become known. We can strive to avoid generalizations and stereotypes, and we can model respect for those who have died, who have been injured, and who are grieving deeply. We can create opportunities for our students to build bridges across lines of difference, and we can remind them that even small, caring communities (like our schools) can help model and extend an ethic of care into the wider world.  And as adults, we can support and care for one another as well, as we do this essential and challenging work of guiding and protecting our children.

This afternoon, in sadness, I am thinking about the fragile nature of our lives. And with certainty, I’m also thinking about the courage and resilience of the human spirit, so often and so astonishingly expressed by the members of our wonderful school communities.”

I, too, want to offer some suggestions for protecting the human spirit in the face of these kinds of tragedies, but first I want to say a little about emergency preparedness—keeping children safe from physical harm.

At Lowell, we review our emergency procedures yearly, refining and adding features. I remind everyone that we are an adult-rich environment and that we are always on a kind of “soft alert”  where safety is concerned. We have protocols for all sorts of possible, if improbable, scenarios, as well as protocols for those weather-related emergencies that are more likely. We know how to “lock down” if we need to. We are prepared to the extent anyone reasonably can be for the unknown. To a large extent we can protect children from external threats—of human or natural origin.

What is harder to do is protect children from the impact of hearing about disturbing happenings out in the world—whether local or global. We know we need to arm our children with knowledge to keep them safe, but at what age? How much of the “real world” does a child need to know about? When? The answer is different for every family and every child.

Your child is sometimes exposed to information through older siblings, schoolmates, the internet, television, or radio sooner than you would like. The timing is not always in your control. Therefore, it is important to be aware of what your child is taking in and how they are feeling, especially at high intensity times such as this week when the news is peppered with reruns of horrific events. Slow down the pace at home, spend more family time together, make sure there are times when you and your child can comfortably connect—before bed, in the car, or around the family dinner table, for example. Listen for questions and take your cues as to what is needed from those. Reassurance that adults work to make their world a safer place is critical. 

Helping children focus on people making a positive difference in the world also helps when they are seeing adults doing the opposite. Find a way to involve your child in making the world a better place for others. A simple way right now is find the coats your family has outgrown or set aside that are still in very good shape and bring them into our winter coat drive. By putting energy into service for others in need, your child experiences adults doing the right thing. In a world where that does not always appear to be the case, this is important. Service also empowers your child.

Here are some resources with advice about how to talk with your children about tragedies. I have also included a few resources for preparing your home and family for various emergencies.

With troubling events bombarding us locally, nationally, and internationally, we have to find and model strength, heart, and courage for our children’s sake. I hope you will find these resources useful. I also hope you take comfort in being a part of a warm, caring community that helps children feel safe, valued, heard, and empowered. That foundation is crucial to their futures.

Let’s embrace the holiday season with hope and light in our hearts.

Best to you all,


Digital World Map Photo—© Embe2006 |

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Topics: Parenting

Debbie Gibbs

Written by Debbie Gibbs

Debbie Gibbs is a former head of Lowell School. She earned her BA in theater arts from Pomona College, her BS in elementary education from the University of Minnesota, and her MA in educational technology from the University of San Francisco. Her career as a school administrator began when she became interim assistant director at The Blake Schools in Minneapolis, MN. She went on to become the head of upper school and assistant head for academic affairs at Marin Country Day School in California. She became Lowell's fourth head of school in 2007. She has served on the Board of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS) and the editorial board of Independent School Magazine, a publication of the National Association of Independent Schools.