A Parent’s Nightmare: School Shootings and How to Talk to Your Kids
The school shooting in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day has many parents anxious and afraid to send their child to school. The fiber of our community is affected with each school shooting, and there have already been two since the new year. How can we possibly reassure our children and help them feel safe in a world that can turn deadly in a minute? Mental health experts have been working around the clock to help parents through this most recent tragedy. No one has all of the answers; however, we do agree on one thing: talking to your children can help them feel more secure in coming to you when they are troubled.
Grief does not go away on its own. It needs a supportive, accepting environment where open and honest conversation can be held. Unresolved grief and stress turn into depression and anxiety, which are predictors for suicide. The first thing to remember as a parent is that grief, delayed stress reaction, and an increase in anxiety or depression are common after a crisis. Allowing your child time to recover and talk to you or a professional can help them work through their feelings more effectively.
Below are suggestions that can help your family cope with the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. Remember that the age of your child determines the direction of the conversation throughout the grieving process.
Have a network of close friends and family you can talk to prior to talking to your children. Your children gage their emotional concern based on your reactions and behaviors. Before you talk to your children, make sure you’re coping well.
Find an ideal time when your child is open to talking. For some families that’s in the car, before dinner, or at bedtime. Ask them directly how they are feeling. Rather than saying, “You’re doing okay with the shooting today, right?” Say, “How are you feeling about the shooting?
Sit with them without distraction and join them in the conversation. Stay away from lecturing or telling them how they should feel. Kids shut down when parents begin telling them what and how to feel.
Keep your home a safe place. When things are chaotic in your child’s world they need to feel as though they can come home and be secure. Reassure them that you are there for them with comfort and support. Hug them and help them feel safe.
Take screen breaks and organize family activities your whole family can participate in. Family night pizza and board games help reduce stress. The more relaxed they become, the more they will open up to sharing.
Watch for signs of stress, anxiety, depression, and fear. Expect children to have a wide range of emotions after a school shooting. They may not be able to sleep, concentrate on school work, or feel like eating. This often improves within a month. Encourage your child to journal, express their emotions in artwork, or write letters to the family of victims. Children feel better when they’re doing something that will help the surviving families. Consider organizing an event or memorial in your community.
Know when to call a mental health provider. If your child's normal eating or sleeping habits change dramatically or if they cry frequently, develop nervous habits, or become angry easily, it’s important to talk to your child’s pediatrician. Your pediatrician can help you make an appointment with a mental health care provider. It is not advised to wait for it to “blow over.” Unresolved grief turns to into depression; it doesn’t go away on its own.
Remember that you are your child’s model for managing traumatic events. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Keeping a regular schedule for activities, family meals, and exercise helps your children feel secure and provides a sense of normalcy to their day.