With the recent incidents of school shootings around the country, we may be asking how we can respond. These breaks in our sense of security bring up many feelings, questions and worries. They can make us feel sick as we think about the loss of life and the loss of peace that happens as a result of such a tragedy and traumatic experience.
The most recent shooting in Nashville is having a ripple effect across families and communities.
As adults, we wonder what we can do and what are the best ways to talk to our children about the worst possible real-life situations unfolding before them.
One important point to recognize is that there are many victims in these tragic situations. The other students at the school, the bystanders, the staff and teachers, the parents, those connected in some way to the victims and their families, and even those just watching the situation happen within a community. We all can experience secondary traumatic impact, even if we weren’t right there when it happened.
Children and teens
We can all watch our kids closely, and we can help them express their thoughts and worries. We can watch for changes in their behavior and actions, and we can make sure we are staying in tune with their feelings. Children may have difficulty focusing, be irritable or find it hard to fall asleep.
There are ways to help kids with anxiety and ways not to help kids with anxiety following an event like a school shooting.
Find out what your child is thinking, and then validate their feelings. What they see and hear on the news impacts us all. When trust and security are broken for a young person, it’s important to help them process it. Talk about it with them; don’t ignore their thoughts and emotions and hope they will go away.
Traumatic stress can look many different ways. It can be a fear of going into the situation where violence or the traumatic experience happened, but it also can be an underlying depression or anxiousness. Trauma can lead to hypervigilance, to fear of loud noises or to other unexpected reactions. Reaction to trauma also can be expressed through general anxiety.
“Children and teens are worried, and we need to help them express it and come up with ways to manage their worry.”
We never want to dismiss feelings. We never want to say, “Oh, you shouldn’t be worried.” Or “This will never happen again.” Instead, validate that it’s OK to worry. Children and teens are worried, and we need to help them express it and come up with ways to manage their worry.
Pay continual attention. Even days or weeks after the tragedy, check in. Watch for increased focus on the event or on death. Watch for ongoing worry. If you see heightened anxiety and worry that impacts your child’s functioning in any way, seek professional help.
We also have to think about parents, and that may mean thinking about ourselves if we are parents. Parents can be strongly impacted by these shootings and also can need help sorting things out.
For example, one parent said she raced over to her child’s high school in Arlington, Texas, after a shooting happened there. Later, she returned to work but said she couldn’t stop crying. She finally told her boss that she just had to leave and go pick up her child.
We encourage parents to talk about their worries and feelings too — that’s important following trauma. With trauma, it’s important to be aware of our emotional response, but also our behavioral response. It can’t be denied.
Life is unpredictable, and when we’re dealing with anxiety, we never want to say to ourselves, “Don’t be worried. Don’t act anxious.”
We as parents have to recognize the world is unpredictable. Yet, we also need to realize that day-to-day, there are security measures in place. Day-to-day, there is safety. It is in this balance of validating our emotions that it’s OK to worry, but at the same time understanding that we need to go about life with confidence, with a sense of security.
What about teachers? They’re in classrooms every day, including when unthinkable events like shootings happen. They obviously have huge concerns, but they still have to be a rock for their students who may be experiencing trauma. Teachers are looking for how their students are doing and responding to those needs, while managing their own concerns. They are in a tough position.
“There are many things we can’t control, but we can control how we respond to teachers.”
Teachers need our support. There are many things we can’t control, but we can control how we respond to teachers. It’s always important to have parent involvement in schools and for parents to ask what they can do to help. But after traumatic events, it’s critical that we encourage school administrators in supporting our teachers and find ways to offer our own help.
We all can look for warning signs we typically see in people who are deeply angry and may feel like committing violence against others.
Our focus should be on creating safe communities and on being in tune with other people when they are struggling. Certainly, when we hear young people or adults talking about violence, we should consider if they are highly focused on it, if they have a history of aggressive behavior and if they have access to guns. We want to look closely at what is happening with them and take action if there’s any doubt about their safety or the safety of others.
When violence moves into a school setting, it is completely unsettling. It breaks our basic sense of security. When we’re talking to our kids and ourselves, we’re processing what happened and we’re asking, “What are our emotions?”
We’re responding to those who are dealing with trauma. We’re paying attention to children and teens, we’re supporting our teachers, and we’re also being in tune with situations that could lead to violence.
We can’t control the unpredictable events of life, but we can control how we go about creating safe, healthy communities and environments. We can think about the impact on children and also on ourselves and other adults. Together, we can find ways to create a greater sense of security and support for all of us.
We all have resources we rely on in times of strong emotions, worry or questioning. Faith does not make us immune to pain, loss or tragedy. But faith does offer comfort. Communities of faith can offer a caring presence and support. Therapy can help us process our feelings and thoughts and gain awareness about how we could take care of ourselves. Life requires constant navigation of emotions, thoughts and situations that disrupt our normal flow of life.
The impact of the shootings at Covenant and in our community will require many to face loss and to navigate difficult memories and grief for years to come. We must never stop supporting those impacted.
We must not live in fear, but rather, we must live with humble recognition that life is fragile and there is brokenness in our world. We must never stop embracing the hope and peace found in our faith.
Brad Schwall serves as president of The Center for Integrative Counseling and Psychology in Dallas.
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