I feel your pain and horror. I, too, am a parent and have two Juniors this year whose finals week was interrupted by the school shooting at Reynolds high school. They have been so busy just trying to get through finals week that they haven’t even had time or energy to integrate what is happening in their own community.
Nothing makes us more anxious than a threat to our children’s safety. Nothing makes us feel more powerless, saddened and enraged then when our schools safe walls are breached by murderous rage and terror.
Some of us are vulnerable to traumatic stress and anxiety already. Events like this can feel overwhelming to cope with, and even moreso to help our kids to cope. So what can we do?
As a professional and as a parent, I recommend that you put on the metaphorical oxygen mask first. Please take the time to do whatever you can to take care of yourself in the coming weeks. If you feel your own anxiety spiraling out of control, please get some help from a qualified trauma therapist or perhaps some other provider that you feel comfortable with such as an acupuncturist, Reiki practitioner or yoga therapist. If you feel that you need psychiatric medication, now would be a good time to get a consultation. Practicing mindfulness meditation could be helpful or whatever really helps you calm down and integrate.
If you are like most Americans you are probably going to want to think your way out of this problem and come up with a snappy and satisfying solution (gun control, armed school guards, mental health interventions etc). I would encourage you NOT to jump to this just yet. First we need to calm ourselves down and become really, REALLY present to ourselves and our families.
Trauma, like grief, has its own pace and rhythm, and some of us are dealing with both. Our kids may have known the victim(s) or even been the victim. We need to give healing its full due. If our kids see us stopping, processing and restoring ourselves from trauma, that gives them permission to do so as well. There are many resources for healing out there, including my book, The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD From the Inside Out, which has a whole chapter on first-aid for trauma shock, the first stage of trauma. Reading it will help you cope with the immediate aftermath of trauma. (You can find it in your local library and in all bookstores.)
Your children are in shock and grief, too. Like my kids, they may be in the middle of finishing up testing and not really be available for processing their feelings, or they may have a lot of time on their hands and be inwardly stewing over what has happened. Lately the world seems to have exploded in violence. Even if they are quiet, they have definitely noticed.
Make yourself extra available to them. Depending on age, gender and temperament our children will have varying needs and ways of moving through their own horror, anger and sadness. Allow them to find their own mode of expression, which may be very different than yours. But they do need to express in order to integrate.
As a child and teen therapist, I know that there are very few children who can just sit down and talk about their feelings to their parents in an adult way. It is best to find activities to do with your kids and let the conversation steer its way naturally to what is troubling them. You can ask open ended questions and make positive statements such as, “I’m really interested in what you think/feel about this event.” “What are other people saying about what happened on Facebook?” etc. Good activities can be throwing a ball, shooting hoops (I got really good at this doing inpatient work with boys), going for a walk together, driving somewhere, listening to music together (their choice), playing a card or board or video game (not too intense so there is room for conversation). You need to initiate these activities, especially for kids who tend to isolate when they are upset.
Allow your children, and especially teens, an uncensored discussion. If you have rules about swearing or intensity (such as loudness or sarcastic tone), tell your child that you have suspended these rules, so they can say, freely, whatever is on their mind. Our kids talk very differently to each other than they do in front of us. If they need to blow off steam but feel inhibited in front of us, they will blow off steam elsewhere.
Sometimes stressful events like this show areas of relationships that are in need of work. If you have been having trouble connecting with your child, this trauma will not automatically draw you closer. It may, in fact, do the opposite. If so, consider seeking out professional help for yourself and/or the family.
Put down your cell phone when you are home. Stay home and make it clear that you are available when they need to talk, even if that need comes up around 10 or 11 pm as they are going to bed (as if often will). Monitor your own need to engage in avoidance activities and choose engagement.
If you do not already have a self-care routine, now would be an excellent time to start one. I am a big fan of progressive relaxation exercises and often prescribe them. You could find some online or buy a CD and practice relaxing your whole body a couple of times a day, to reset your own nervous system. Allow yourself more downtime than usual.
Know these signs of acute stress and monitor them in your children. If they persist past 2-4 weeks they may be cause for concern:
- repetitive talk about the event
- repetitive drawing of the event
- needy and clingy
- more forgetful than usual
- having trouble regulating emotions: laughing silly “highs” crash into sullen “lows
- hair-pulling (trichotillomania)
- disturbed eating
- insomnia or frequent awakening in fear or tantrums
- age-inappropriate behavior such as bed-wetting
- rigid and perseverative play behavior (in younger children)
Lastly, know that no matter how upsetting this event is to your family and child, healing is possible. Human beings are incredibly resilient. In the process of healing you and your family may wish to take some action in the world. If this feels right to you, do it. The wound of trauma often demands some response from us – when the time is right.
Blessings on your journey of healing, Sue