Why — and how — parents should manage their anxiety after school shootings
After the school shooting at a grade school in Uvalde, Texas, that killed at least 19 children, experts say parents have to deal with their own emotions first
With news that at least 19 grade school children and two adults were killed Tuesday in a shooting in Uvalde, Texas, parents find themselves wondering how to calm their own jitters so they can help their children move through their anxiety.
Parental anxiety is actually the primary concern of most mental health professionals in traumatic and violent situations, said Dee Ray, a professor of early childhood education at the University of North Texas and director of its Center for Play Therapy.
“Regulated parents make for regulated children. Dysregulated parents increase the dysregulation of children,” she said.
Ray and others noted that a parent’s task in the days ahead includes figuring out how to address the tragedy with children while helping them feel safe.
Dr. Laurel L. Williams, professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, admitted Wednesday that she woke up feeling heartsick and filled with despair. And that’s where she thinks parents should start. They need to acknowledge and “metabolize” their own distress. It helps to talk their feelings out with other adults with whom one feels comfortable.
Parents have to be able to show their children how to move through whatever emotions they have, but being so bogged down that you are paralyzed with fear or anxiety yourself will in no way help your family, Williams said.
Still, she thinks a lot of parents are feeling that degree of anxiety today. They need to unload some of those feelings and then consider the particulars of their children, individually, and how to address their concerns.
Other experts agree that feeling anxious is normal right now.
“A tragedy like this makes us all fearful,” said Cathy Kennedy-Paine, who works with the National Association of School Psychologists’ crisis response team. “It’s important for parents to understand they will be fearful and upset, but they need to keep their emotions under control while talking to their children. That’s difficult but really critical.”
She said children should see adults express emotions, but also handle them. That’s how children learn to move forward after something dreadful occurs. When parents are fearful or anxious about their children, they have to remember that their job is still to reassure children that everything possible will be done to keep them safe, Kennedy-Paine said.
Moving through trauma
Parents may feel almost paralyzed by fear for their children, said David Derezotes, a professor of social work and director of Peace and Conflict Studies in the College of Humanities at the University of Utah. Worrying like that involves imagining the worst that can happen, which isn’t healthy for adults or children.
“That is going to warp my children in a negative way. Imagining the worst doesn’t help me do my job as a parent,” he said.
The heart is in the here and now, the brain in the past of the future, Derezotes said, so he likes to use mindfulness and bring his mind back to the present. That practice is transformative, shifting his own view and those of others to “we will figure this out.”
But being overprotective doesn’t help children, either, he adds. Anxiety is a natural reaction, “like a barking dog at the edge of the village saying something is happening. We don’t punish the dog. We say, ‘What’s out there, Bowser?’” Derezotes said.
Instead, parents should acknowledge at least to themselves what is worrying or upsetting them. Healing and transformation don’t happen to individuals or collectively without discomfort, he noted.
The anxiety that children and adults are feeling right now is a healthy reaction that Derezotes believes should be discussed openly. After parents examine their own reactions, they should ask kids what they are thinking and feeling about an event.
Parents can acknowledge honestly that they feel many of the same emotions, he said, noting that honesty is part of love. “Whether we like it or not, a lot is going on that threatens our existence right now,” he said, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, war and, yes, mass murder. Even adults struggle to understand the whys, so how could children not be upset and confused?
While Derezotes recommends always being truthful with children at age-appropriate levels, he warns against scaring them more. A conversation could go more along the lines of “Yeah, it worries me, too. I don’t know if I understand it,” he said.
Kennedy-Paine agrees. Showing emotion, saying you’re sad or confused or in disbelief that someone would do something terrible is fine. But parents who fear they will break down sobbing should not be the ones talking to their children about the event, she warned.
“You want your emotions in control. Be reassuring about the fact the probability is low and schools are safe places — that people work hard every day to keep children safe,” said Kennedy-Paine.
Statistically, having a shooting at your local school is a 1 in 2 million chance, although that’s not a consolation for those to whom it happens, said Kennedy-Paine. But being able to put it in perspective for children does help, she said.
If parents don’t have time to deal with their own emotions first, Williams said it’s OK to circle back the next day and say something like, “You know, yesterday, Mommy was really sad.” Acknowledge and talk about how that affected the child, she said. “You know what? I’m sorry that maybe upset you.”
The National Association of School Psychologists offers age-appropriate tips for talking to kids about violence, which include:
- Early elementary school children need brief, simple information, balanced with reassurance that their school and home are safe and adults will protect them. They need simple examples of school safety, like the fact the school has fire drills and adults monitor the playground.
- Upper elementary and early middle school children will have more questions about whether they are safe and may need help separating reality from fantasy. The discussion on safety steps can be more detailed.
- Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will also share ideas on how to make school safer. Emphasize their role in maintaining safe schools and following safety guidelines.
For parents to manage their anxiety, Ray recommends many of the same things that she recommends for children, including reducing exposure to TV and social media that present graphic details on the tragedy. Prolonged exposure to the details and grief just make anxiety worse.
She notes, too, that reporters have a tendency to highlight the randomness of the event and the likelihood of additional random events. “Today I saw on a news report, an expert clearly state that the country is in ‘trouble’ and we can expect ‘more and more’ of these incidents,” she told the Deseret News.
“Because this kind of reporting offers no solutions and emphasizes a lack of control, it will increase parent anxiety and parents need to limit their exposure to this type of sensationalism,” she said.
Parents also need safe spaces away from their children to discuss their fears and anxieties with other adults, Ray said. That helps parents regain a sense of connectedness with others and know that most parents share similar concerns. The relational connection helps reduce anxiety.
Kennedy-Paine said families should make it a point to keep normal routines. Adults — and children — find a great deal of security and comfort in routines.
Parents “absolutely” need to take positive actions to help establish a sense of control, experts said. It can be as simple as making sure to smile and exchange pleasantries and look people in the eye at the grocery store to connect with strangers, said Ray. Parents can take advocacy action like donating money, planning a fundraiser or volunteering. The point is for parents to take positive actions so they are not overwhelmed by negative thoughts or feelings of being out of control, she said.
“They need to engage in activities that remind them that most people in the world are caring and empathic. Positive actions also have the added effect of modeling positive responses for their children,” Ray said.
Parents can do the most by asking themselves, on a day like today, how they can make the world a better place, Williams said. “Just bring something kind and good back into the world,” she said, “and it will repay you with a sense of control.”
Drilling – and how not to do it
One way parents and other adults try to inject a sense of safety after trauma is through practicing for scary events. But although knowing what to do if something terrible happens is crucial and requires some practice, there’s a wrong way to do it, experts said.
Preparing for an event like a shooting only improves safety if done correctly, which means not using fake weapons and trying to set up realistic scenarios that can terrify children. Drills should be both expected and calm, said Kennedy-Paine. “Not trying to be realistic, but teaching kids what to do so it becomes routine, like a fire drill. Most children are not traumatized by a fire drill. We do not light the building on fire, so why should we bring someone with a weapon into school to practice?”
Rather, the practice is like having an insurance policy, she said. And that calm is critical because a drill done poorly can have trauma potential.
Williams said safety drills for families should not be approached “like a doomsday prepper.” Instead, parents should find a time when emotions are not high and parents are not upset to talk about plans for safety, “not specifically about being in the fire or an earthquake or shooting, but if something bad were to happen, these are the steps we would take as a family. Then you go through them,” she said.
Families should have lots of safety routines that are just that, routine: We look both ways before we cross the street. We put a seatbelt on when we’re in the car. We get vaccinated.
“We do lots of things all day long to help us live in this world,” she said. “That may include active-shooter drills. But they should be spelled out in advance so that parents can opt out or be prepared if their children have questions.”
Williams said police are the ones who need to practice with pretend shooters, not children. “Our amygdala is the part of our brain that manages fear and it only has three responses to fear: You freeze in place and hope the thing goes away. You run away from the thing. Or you turn around and fight it. And most people don’t have that fight response,” she said.
When to get help
If after two or three weeks, children still seem extremely emotional or anxious, Kennedy-Paine recommends contacting a school counselor, psychologist or other mental health resource. After that long, “big emotions should subside,” she said.
If parents find themselves completely overwhelmed by anxiety, such as refusing to leave their children alone or sharing excessive worries with their child instead of other adults, they should seek professional support through counseling, Ray added.
Some employers have free employee assistance plans that can help. Telehealth options have also expanded during the pandemic.
Early Wednesday morning, as she prepared to meet with her team, Williams sent them this message:
The events of the last several weeks (and months) seem to bring the world endless suffering.
Despair can lead to being paralyzed.
I urge each of us to consider how we can bring care, goodness and activism into the world. No act is too small. Decide for yourself which action to take, plan and take flight. There can be more light if we all help bring it out.