A classroom. Photo by Mike Fox on Unsplash

My child’s school recently had an unannounced lockdown where students and teachers were reportedly not informed it was just a drill until 15 minutes or so later. Many parents expressed frustration as their children came home crying, stressed and worried about the future.

I spoke to Kyle Kunkel, a licensed clinical professional counselor with Thriveworks, a mental health company offering in-person and online therapy services nationwide, about how to address the lockdown drills, as well as other types of drills, with your children. 

Kunkel, who specializes in trauma/PTSD, stress, child development and parenting skills, has experience providing mental health services for kids and families during times of crisis. Here are her responses:

Kyle Kunkel
Kyle Kunkel

How should you explain the different drills to your child without worrying them about the possibilities of what could happen?

Start by reassuring your child that the school they attend is prepared to provide as safe of an environment as they can.  The school is there to protect and educate in an effort to promote intellectual and emotional growth. Drills are a part of safety protocols, education and emotional growth. Practicing drills allows everyone, staff and students alike, the ability to respond instead of react to emergency situations.  

As a general rule, do not have the news on in the background in the car or house. Unnecessary and unfiltered exposure without conceptual conversations between a healthy adult and age appropriate child has the potential to increase a child’s anxiety and fear.

Can you give me examples of how you would explain a fire drill, earthquake drill or lockdown drill? How would you explain it to different age groups?

A child younger than 8 years of age should be introduced to the basics of drills and the steps of the drill.  A child older than 8 years of age has the ability to understand their behavioral role and decision making. Children in this age range will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they are truly safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Explain possibility vs probability (i.e., it is possible that there would be some sort of emergency situation at their school but the probability is extremely low). A child older than 13 years of age is able to understand the complexities of the world.  Explaining to this child that “hurt people hurt people” is in an effort to provide insight into why some of these drills may be necessary. Children in this age range may have strong and varying opinions about causes of violence in school and society. Emphasize the agency that the child has in maintaining school safety (e.g., not allowing access to others in the building, telling a trusted adult when they feel something is “not right,” seeking a trusted adult when their emotions feel personally too much to handle, etc).  

Explanation of any drill is effective when the caregiver brings it outside of the school building as well. For example, explaining the role of emergency personnel, noticing fire engines, ambulances, police vehicles, etc in the community, pointing out that they are on their way to help someone, and talking about safety in the home environment as well.

What are some red flags that your child is not ready for this talk?

Children often gauge how threatening or serious an event is by adults’ reactions. As adults we need to check ourselves first, find accurate and reliable information regarding the situation and remember the age, developmental level, emotional level and mental health load of your child first.

If, as an adult you want to have the conversation, but the child does not seem interested, do not push the issue and require your child participate. Assure your child that you are ready to talk when they are ready to talk. Children are listening to more than they respond to and so while they may not be able to have a conversation right then and there, if they are allowed the space in an environment where they have been shown that their voice matters, they will bring it up to you on their time.

Provide the space for your child to guide the conversation. Parents are encouraged to talk with children, validate their feelings and observe their child’s emotional state. Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Communication comes in many forms, 55% is body language, 38% is tone of voice, and only 7% is the words we use.  Be in tune with your child’s form of communication and approach your child with empathy.  It’s also important to recognize that some children may not want to or need to talk about the events.  

Be aware of signs that children might be in distress, e.g., changes in behavior, anxiety, sleep problems, acting out, problems at school or with academic work.  

Properly supervise your child’s social media presence on a regular basis and talk with your kids about what you see without threats or “you should know better” etc. Open conversations breed more open conversations while belittling or threatening conversations lead to avoidance and the child seeking advice and guidance from strangers or peers rather than a trusted adult.

What about red flags following this discussion that indicate your child is worried or stressed about these possible incidents? What are the red flags and how should they be addressed?

Immaturity and behaviors spilling out into their environment, for example the child exhibits violence in the home and/or school setting and does not see violence as an issue. Changes in appetite or sleep habits should be taken seriously. If the child begins repeatedly asking about the conversation and expressing, especially at times of being alone, that they are fearful.  As well as nightmares- which are appropriate but monitor for how long the nightmares last.  Nightmares are our brain’s processing center and when we are stressed, nightmares amplify.  Process with your child the nightmare.  Allow the space to express how scary the nightmare sounds without saying “oh that would never happen” when your child feels heard in their feelings, they will start problem-solving and sharing how “that would never happen” on their own with your support.

If your child starts to change their typical patterns, behaviors, ways of thinking then it is time to reach out to a mental health professional for support for the child and family as well.

Give your child agency to speak up if they see something or hear something. Review who is a trusted adult in your child’s school identified by your child; and as the parent, reach out to that staff member to give them the heads up that they are the identified trusted adult and you are encouraging your child to seek them out if needed.


San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Have a story idea? Email hoaq@timesofsandiego.com and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.