Over the last week, a school shooting in our neighboring community has devastated the families who lost loved ones and disrupted all that was normal for those who live there. In the wake of such loss, many people are reeling, and the emotional and psychological fall out is wide-spread. The impact often extends beyond those who live in the area, even if there is no personal connection to the event. The local school closings, copycat threats and intense focus on the aftermath of the violence has many families feeling vulnerable.
This type of tragedy impacts everyone in a community, parents and children alike. Whether your children are talking about it or not, it is important to check in on how they are doing. Often parents are concerned that they will be making a difficult issue the focus of attention, but many times children are already pre-occupied with the violence – as well as the loss of safety and security that comes with it.
How you talk about this issue with your children will depend on their age, temperament and their unique response. Start by asking what it is they know, rather than guessing what they do and don’t know. Children pick up a great deal of information even when we are careful about what is disclosed to them. A good starting point is: What do you know about what is happening and do you have any questions about it?
With younger children it is generally best to start with the least amount of information needed to give them a sense of security, and then disclose more in degrees. Take your cues from them about what they can handle by the questions they ask or their level of engagement. For example, you may tell an elementary student that schools are shutting down for a mental health day if they don’t know the specifics of what is going on. Or you may share a bit more by saying the schools are shut down because there was an incident in a community close by and they want to give families time to be together.
• Provide information about the event using simple, honest, age-appropriate terms. Don’t use euphemisms or half-truths – it only frightens and confuses them.
• Allow kids to talk about their response repeatedly if they need to. This won’t make it worse. It helps them dismantle their grief. They need frequent reassurance.
• Because children move in and out of grief frequently, and can’t process too much at a time, give them time and space to recover. Let them know it’s okay to grieve, but it’s also okay not to grieve – to laugh, play, enjoy friends and forget about their sadness.
• Encourage expressive outlets through drawing, writing or play.
• Provide structure and routine. This instills safety, normalcy and a sense of control. Parent the way you have always parented as it reinforces predictability.
With children who are older or have more information, it is important to help them separate facts from the misinformation that often comes with a tragedy. Encourage them to limit media and social media consumption. While having information may give them a sense of control, or a context for trying to understand something, this is often a faulty assumption. It can exacerbate anxiety, powerlessness and fear. Monitor how much media they are consuming and help them disengage from the flood of coverage that will persist.
Validate their response to this crisis and that their grief, anxiety, or anger is a normal. Kids will sometimes believe their feelings of vulnerability mean that they are overly sensitive or not coping well. Reinforce that they are having a reasonable response to a pathological situation, which many of us are struggling to process. Kids may assume that their family members or peers are not having the same difficulty so it can be helpful to know that grief isn’t always visible, and everyone navigates it differently.
Encourage older children to maintain their routines and stay connected with peers, allowing for some adaptation based on their needs. Help them to assess what is the best balance for them in terms of structure and downtime, solitude and socializing, and attending to their grief versus compartmentalizing it. This balance will look different for everyone, so try to approach these conversations around how they can best take care of themselves, rather than problem solving for them.
There is a significant secondary loss for all of us, which is the loss of safety and sense of control. It is very typical to feel powerless in response to a crisis. Help your kids identify where they do have some control. This may start with choices around self-care that include eating decently, physical activity, getting extra sleep, or staying connected with supports. Making informed choices for themselves, even in the smallest of ways, will help them to resume a sense of control. Allow them autonomy whenever you reasonably can and help them to understand that they can take the time they need to respond in their own way.
Some young people will seek a sense of purpose right now. Encouraging their sense of agency is one of the most important ways we can support them. If our students are activated around the desire to do something within the community you can support them with questions like: What might be the consequences of doing this? What are you hoping to accomplish? Who are the friends and supports you can access for this? What are you doing to educate yourself and others around this? And are there additional, or alternative ways, to pursue what you want to accomplish?
Finally, it is so critical to instill hope in our children and adolescents. While we don’t want to discount the torrid of emotions they may be feeling by trying to move them through them their grief too quickly, it is helpful to reassure them that - whatever their recovery process looks like – they will not always feel like this.
Praying for the families devastated by this violence, as well as those struggling with the aftermath of this tragedy, especially the families of Madisyn Baldwin,
Justin Shilling, Hana St. Juliana, and Tate Myre.