The unthinkable has happened again. By now you have already heard of the nation’s most recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas so I won’t take the time to summarize the event, nor provide updates as we know the 24-hour news is much more capable of that than me. The purpose of this email/post is to offer a few practical tools and springboards for you to use with your child(ren) in the days and weeks ahead. Let’s dive in with a few common questions during times like these:
- Should I talk to my kids about it? They’re so young and I don’t want to destroy their innocence.
In my opinion, parents and grown-ups should talk to their children about difficult events such as this in an age-appropriate fashion (covered below), especially for children in kindergarten and above. The main reason for initiating a conversation with your child (and not waiting for them to come to you) is because if they’re old enough to go to school, then they’re old enough to hear about such events from their classmates. As their parent/guardian you are much better equipped at helping your child process such a tragedy rather than one of their peers.
- My child hasn’t mentioned it (i.e. they probably don’t know about it/they probably don’t have any questions)…..so why should I?
Children not bringing a tragedy up is NOT the same thing as children being unaware of said tragedy. As children get older, they attempt to process and reason on their own before/rather than coming to their parents/guardians. Just because your child hasn’t talked about it yet doesn’t mean they aren’t talking about it at all….it just means they aren’t talking to you about it. Take the initiative and bring it up first!
- My child is having nightmares and can’t sleep. Now what?
Depending on how old your child is, their nightmares could be a result of being over-informed or under-informed. If you determine that they are over-informed, implement a media/screen fast (perhaps even for the whole family) for 24-72 hours. Be sure to communicate that a device free weekend isn’t a punishment but rather a good action of mental and emotional health, self-care, and relaxation. Remember that a technology-fast is usually more successful if there are family/connection activities to replace individual free time that is usually filled with screens. Your child being under-informed means that they know just enough details to be scared and anxious while not possessing tools for soothing their anxiety and being able to sleep. Again, do not provide false promises (i.e. this will never happen at your school) but rather offer a mindset which provides the possibility for “being okay” when bad things happen (i.e. “No matter what happens, we will always be a family and as a family, we get through everything together,” or “Bad things happen to every single person in life. No matter what, you have a family that will be with you if anything bad happens.”). Additionally, keep a closer eye on the child’s routine and consider an earlier bed time for extra sleep.
- My child is scared of going to school now. What should I do?
Your child’s fear is natural. Whether this is the first school shooting your child has been aware of or if it is their fourth or fifth, your child is connecting world events with their own reality and context. (Remember how tenuous it felt to fly after 9/11?) Remember to validate their feelings and fears first (don’t be dismissive) and moving to rational and reasonable action plans second. It is impossible for your child to no longer attend school. What is possible is offering your child tips and tricks for managing their anxiety while at school. Additionally, communicating your child’s fears with all relevant school staff (their teacher, school counselor, after school program leader, etc.) can help bridge the gap in the immediacy of this tragedy.
- I’m scared of my child going to school now. What should I do?
Your child(ren) needs you to manage your own anxiety. Children pick up on the emotions (spoken and unspoken) of the grown-ups around them. When you are absent-mindedly or intentionally glued to the 24/7 news updates, projecting your anxiety in a way that makes your child feel like they need to comfort you or showing excessive emotion in front of them, your child picks up your cues and then mimics similar behavior. It is absolutely okay to be sad, heartbroken, discouraged, dismayed and anxious in response to the shooting at Uvalde. It is okay to cry privately and in front of your children. This is something worthy to cry about. It is the excessive emotion that we need to manage and share behind closed doors with other supportive adults (spouse, sibling, friend or therapist).
Practical Do’s & Don’ts
- DON’T allow your child to have unmonitored access to 24/7 news.
- DO monitor screen usage during this time and remember that the majority of children and teens receive their “news” via YouTube, TikTok and Instagram posts/hashtags.
- DON’T lie to your child(ren) via softening techniques (ex: “they’re angels now” or “that will never happen to you”)
- DO tell the truth while being careful not to overshare details that aren’t age-appropriate (i.e. you can leave out him shooting his grandmother, the details of his family background, what type of gun(s) he may have used, etc.)
- DON’T politicize the tragedy in an attempt to “teach them right and wrong” (i.e. “If Republicans would just pass stricter gun laws this wouldn’t have happened” or “Democrats should just let teachers conceal carry, then this man could have been stopped.”
- DO take this time to discuss right and wrong in a non-political way (i.e. “No matter what we believe politically, we will always believe it is wrong to murder someone,” and “We are all responsible to keep our communities safe, regardless of how we vote.”
- DON’T brush off or minimalize any of their questions or concerns.
- DO offer an “anytime you want” policy to your children….(i.e. “Anytime you want to ask me anything else, you can.”)…so that they can continue to process on their own and then come back to you if and when needed.
- DON’T “over-spiritualize” your response by insisting that God “needed” the children in Heaven or that the victims “are angels now”
- DO communicate that God hates what happened to the children at Uvalde (because He hates evil), that we can continue to trust God when tragedies occur and that it’s okay to wonder about why this happened in the first place.
SPRINGBOARD CONVERSATION STARTERS
(for older kids/tweens/teens)
- I’m sure you’ve heard about what happened at the elementary school in Texas. I want to let you know that I’m here for any questions or concerns you may have at any time. You can come and talk with me whenever you’re ready.
- Have you been keeping up with the news on TikTok, YouTube or (fill in social media preference here). What have you heard/watched/read?
- I bet a lot of your friends are pretty scared/anxious/”freaked out” about what happened in Uvalde a few days ago…it’s okay if you are too.
- I’ve been thinking about the Uvalde shooting a lot in the past couple of days and I know it is affecting me; that makes me wonder how you’re doing with this news
Behavior To Expect: Anxiety that shows in the form of new or heightened stubbornness, new or excessive crying, new or excessive oversleeping/undersleeping, new or excessive social media/device usage (as a form of mental/emotional escape), new or excessive isolation. Don’t be surprised if your teen or tween do not immediately jump into a conversation with you; give them space and permission to come to you anytime in the future.
TIP: Older kids, especially tweens and teens “talk” better when doing an activity or off-site from home. Consider taking them out for ice-cream, coffee or another fun drink, going on a walk, during a drive to the ballpark or extra-curricular activity, etc. Think “shoulder to shoulder” rather than “face-to-face”.
(for younger kids)
- “I/We want to check on you and see if you have any questions about what happened at the elementary school in Texas.”
- (if you’re unsure whether or not they know about it) “Mom/Dad want to check and see if any of your friends at school have told you about what happened at an elementary school in Texas.”
- If they answer, “Yes” then follow up with: “What did your friend(s) tell you?”
- If they answer, “No” then follow up with: “Oh good. Because Mom/Dad want to be the first ones to talk with you about scary things….(proceed to tell age-appropriate details)
Behavior To Expect: Anxiety that shows in the form of temper-tantrums (i.e. a sudden unwillingness or uncooperative-ness with regards to getting ready for or going to school), new or excessive isolation, new or excessive screen usage (zoning out with tablet games or YouTube), new or excessive trouble sleeping, new or excessive clinginess with you or your spouse
TIP: Younger kids struggle to separate truth from fantasy; answer only the question they ask and do not go past their original question; keep answers short and to the point while not oversharing impertinent details. Children at this age are more likely to “popcorn process” meaning they’ll pop in and out of interest and questions and be less likely to have one longer, focused discussion. Be prepared to continue to answer questions (have short conversations) for an overall longer period of time compared to their older siblings/peers.