Originally published to NewsWeek - June 2nd, 2022
My 10-year-old daughter cried when she heard about the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas—an inconceivable horror that stole the lives of 21 people, 19 of whom were children.
My daughter immediately asked me, "Can this happen at my school?" Her first instinct was to stay home—she was afraid. Soon, she started listing all the potential ways that a "bad person" could breach the school grounds. So, together, we wrote down her concerns and included them in a letter to her school's principal.
My goal in doing this exercise was simple: I didn't want her thoughts to continue to spiral downward. I wanted her to pinpoint her fears and use them to help refocus her pain. And I, of course, wanted her to not just feel safe at school; I wanted her to actually be safe at school.
This is every parent's expectation, isn't it? You trust that when you drop your children off at school in the morning, they'll be there in the afternoon when you pick them up. What happens when the unimaginable occurs and that trust is broken? How do you even begin to process the heartache and despair that you're experiencing and help your children cope with their feelings at the same time?
Here are five things to keep in mind:
Process Your Own Feelings First
Cry. Scream. Talk to a few close friends or relatives. Do whatever you need to do to process your own feelings first. The immense weight of anguish, anger, hopelessness and grief we're experiencing is compounded by a number of crises—the seemingly constant threat of gun violence, the ongoing pandemic, racially-motivated violence and the lack of health care access—just to name a few. So now, more than ever, it's critical that parents do what they can to protect their own mental health and well-being, so they have the capacity to be a sounding board for their children, too.
Be Open and Honest With Children
It's important to be open and transparent with kids. Even though most of us want to protect our children from any kind of discomfort, it's vital that they understand that bad things do unfortunately happen. Depending on a child's age and/or grade-level, it may be appropriate to explain what's happened and what's currently happening to help ensure it won't happen again. It may be helpful (for you and them) to find out what local and state authorities are doing in your community to help keep students safe at school.
Allow Time to Ask Questions
Not surprisingly, it's hard for most children to find the words that adequately explain how they're feeling. Like many adults, it can sometimes be overwhelming to have multiple feelings simultaneously. That's why it's important to allow kids to process their feelings and thoughts in their own way and in their own time.
Some children are comfortable asking questions immediately and want an immediate dialogue with a parent, teacher, or trusted adult. While others prefer spending time alone and then talking after they've digested complex emotions a bit longer. No matter which process they prefer, it's important they know that you have an open door policy when it comes to asking questions. You may even want to encourage your kids to keep a journal to write down their thoughts and share them with you later.
Keep a Routine and Take Breaks From Social Media
I often hear experts emphasize that routines are important for toddlers and preschool-age children. However, keeping a routine for older children and adults should not be overlooked. Maintaining a consistent schedule is a key part of managing stress levels. Additionally, limiting social media intake in general can help reduce the likelihood of ruminative thinking. Planning a simple family outing like stopping at your favorite ice cream shop can also help in this regard.
Talk to a Mental Health Professional
There is no shame in needing or asking for help. Today, families are shouldering so many different, and in many cases, painful realities. Though it may seem like there aren't enough hours in the day already, doing what you can to find and keep counseling appointments with some degree of regularity is an important part of self-care.
Niyoka McCoy, a former teacher, is senior vice president of Academic Services and chief learning officer at Stride, Inc.