In solidarity with all grieving, frightened, loving humans everywhere, I extend my deepest sympathies to the Uvalde and Buffalo communities. The editors of Nu?Detroit and I wish to share what support we can offer during this time of mourning. Here are common questions I receive when there is a school shooting. Please reach out if more information or conversation would be helpful.
Q: Should I tell my kids what happened? What do I say?
There are age-appropriate ways to tell your child a great many things. Children can handle facts when they are delivered in ways that seem coherent — your affect matches what you are saying — and when adults remain in charge. Note: this does not mean robotic, again, your tone and body language should match what you are saying … be authentic.
Whether you decide to tell your children is ultimately a question of your family’s values. An important reason to start the conversation is that, like it or not, children and youth need to be part of the solutions to this crisis in both the short-term and long-term. Short term, we are counting on children to know and be able to implement safety plans, be upstanders, say something if they hear or see something, and engage in restorative justice practices in schools initiated and scaffolded by teachers and social workers.
In the long term, we are counting on children to learn to manage their anger and aggression in healthy ways, engage in healthy relationships and advocate for systemic changes that are past due. The conversations you start today provide them spaces with the adults they trust the most to optimally develop across these areas.
This article from the LA Times has excellent advice for parents of children of all ages:
Q: What can I do to protect my kids?
There aren’t easy answers to this question. I held my breath along with you this morning, dropping my kids off at their schools, exhaling when I had them safely back in my arms at the end of the day.
Keep your kids emotionally and mentally healthy by engaging in the single most evidence-based practice for mental health: love. I promise, it’s not woo. It’s pure science. Put your energy into secure base behavior — extra hugs, reminders they are cherished, joyful time together, quiet time together, extra listening to their stories and sharing their interests. Actively support exploration — encouraging them, telling them you believe in them, delighting in their accomplishments, sharing your confidence with them that they can do hard things.
These are the two sides of the complete circle of secure attachment. Keep pouring yourself into developing and increasing this bond; it is the best resource for children to use to work on self-regulation skills. It is also the way to ensure there is a trusted relationship in place within which children can ask important questions.
Everytown for Gun Safety has published a report on evidence-based practices in school settings. Advocate for sound practices in your local communities and beyond.
Become informed about systemic oppression, structurally-conferred trauma, and policy gaps that impact American children. Trauma-informed education has become a popular area of program and practice development in recent years. However, a large swath of practice in this area is targeted at helping children cope once they’ve been stressed or traumatized — e.g., mindfulness and breathing practices when anxious symptoms arise. Educational systems can never be truly trauma-informed until we fully interrogate and resolve the way that broader systems create and rigidify trauma.
Q: Why would someone do something like this? Was he mentally ill?
People with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence. Perpetrators of mass homicide, and particularly when those shootings occur in schools, typically have 3 things in common: they are men, they are white, and they have histories of other violence — often violence they got away with, in some sense. Violence against women and children is particularly common in these men’s histories. Here are some resources that describe these phenomena in greater detail.
Q: How do I hide my feelings from my kids? I am so upset and don’t want to scare them.
Parents and children exist in relationships.
Read that again. These are relationships. To be well, they must be real. Emotions are not unhealthy byproducts of living. They are, in fact, our superpowers, giving us immediate information about people and events. Children are searching all the time for cues and clues among trusted adults in their environment about what to feel, how to understand and manifest that feeling, how to use the emotional information to understand their world, and how to cope. Thus, you won’t really get to choose whether or not you share what you feel. What you get to choose is the degree to which you and your child connect or disconnect. You choose how much coaching you provide. You choose whether or not you indirectly teach your child to suppress big, hard feelings.
If you can, give yourself the freedom to be authentic. Ambiguity — when your children sense you feeling something, but no one is naming it — can be more anxiety provoking than an honest portrayal of your experiences. Name the feeling and name the strategy.
I’m feeling sad today because of this very sad thing that happened. When I’m sad, I slow down my normal routine a little and spend more time thinking. Extra hugs really help me. So does a little extra sleep.
Make sure to remind them that emotions connect us to our experiences, and every day brings new feelings. In other words, be the grownup and tell them you will be okay.
I’m spending some time today knowing my sadness. But you can always count on me to start each day fresh, and I know that tomorrow there is the chance for more joy. You know Mom feels lots of things, but I know how to be ok. You can always count on me.
Q: Is it safe to send my kids to school?
There’s no way around this … this is a tough question. Ultimately, every family has to make their own risk assessment. For families who want to exit the traditional school system, there do not exist widespread, knowable, adequate systems of support, outside of homeschool collectives, which may be options for some families depending on context. Thus, the risk assessment most families will make isn’t is school safe but rather do I have another choice.
It isn’t a pretty way to think about this decision, but it is important to be honest. Please refer to the guidelines from Everytown for evidence-based practices that support safer schools. Advocate for your child by asking your school what procedures they have in place.
Then, own this decision and portray confidence to your child. Children who do not feel safe at school are at risk for poor academic outcomes in addition to risk for mental health challenges like increased anxiety. Make reference to concrete strategies that are in place that your child can see and experience and/or give them areas of focus to help their schools improve.
As you navigate your own anxiety, start, as stated, by resolving your ambivalence about the decision. Be reasonable about what is in your power and what is not in your power to decide. Then, consider how you manage anxiety about other areas of risk in your life. For example, you likely continue to drive a car with your children aboard despite the risk of accidents. How do you navigate this? Reflect on your ability to accept risk, cope and thrive; translate these lessons to the current set of challenges you face.
In part, coping is hampered because school shootings continue to feel shocking and new, while other risks we may take with stepped exposure over time. So, while we never want to become emotionally neutral to this problem, a level of acceptance about the permanence of this reality may do more good than harm.