Ask the Experts: Feeling Safe in School

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on May 13, 2021, by Cindy Mailhot, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine. 

Question: My daughter was touched sexually without consent by a classmate last year. She has not had in-person classes with the student this year due to mostly remote classes. She has lately been expressing a lot of anxiousness about seeing him in person when classes resume to normal. How can she best prepare for seeing him again and feeling safe? (The school is aware and spoke to the boy and his parents when this happened. He received a school suspension.)

Answer: I can just imagine how stressful this situation has been for your daughter and for you as a parent. You are doing an amazing job as a parent in supporting your daughter and working with the school to ensure her safety and sense of safety with the world around her.

Not knowing the age of your daughter, here are some suggestions for a variety of ages:

  • Work with the school to determine a schedule and plan that involves minimal interactions with this other student and a plan for when interaction may happen.
  • Sit down with your daughter and review the potential spaces and places she expects to see this other student in school–in the classroom, in the halls, at lunch. Explore the possible interactions she can imagine (good and bad) and brainstorm how she might manage in different situations–walk away, go to the principal or guidance counselor’s office, find her friend group, calmly but firmly say “leave me alone.”
  • Try to understand her “ideal” situation and brainstorm how that might be able to happen.
  • Remind her that the other student might be feeling awkward and uncomfortable, too, and may also be worried about seeing her.
  • Find out what the return to the classroom will look like and perhaps try a trial run rather than going back full-speed immediately.
  • Find out who her supports would be in the school if she’s having a difficult time and work on familiarizing her with these supports (if she isn’t already familiar with them) so she might feel more comfortable seeking help if needed.
  • Explore who the safe people are to talk to if something were to happen that she is uncomfortable with.
  • Stay hopeful. Try something on this list each day. Dwell on thoughts of when the pandemic ends and of all the things you will want to do and explore with your child. Do not hesitate to reach out for help.
  • Find one friend that can be her “buddy” for the first few days or weeks, so she won’t feel alone as she gets a feel for the situation.
  • A transition object from home that she can keep in her pocket that reminds her of your unconditional love and support throughout her day may ease the transition.
  • Provide plenty of opportunities to discuss her worries and concerns with you and anyone else she might feel comfortable with.

To know if she’s adjusting well, keep the lines of communication open. Check-in with her regularly and ask how she’s feeling, if the plans that were made are working and if anything needs to change. I also recommend that you watch for behavior changes. If you notice anything concerning (you know your daughter best), reach out to a mental health specialist for assistance. Behavior changes could include a change in social activities, isolation, sadness, anger, acting out, or essentially any behavior that is outside the norm for your child.

 

Cindy Mailhot, LCSW, CCS is a clinical social worker and the Assistant Director of Outpatient Therapy at Health Affiliates Maine.

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