When we, as parents, learn that our children have been in a potentially life-threatening situation it impacts us greatly. The mixture of fear and anger ties into the adrenal system to produce an intense impulse to act. One expression of this instinct to respond is to do “whatever my child needs.” But once they safely arrive back at our homes, we’re not always sure what that entails.
The magnitude of the situation leads us to think that the actions we should take will be profound, significant, or elaborate. We want to respond in a way that matches the moment. But the responses that are most helpful are much simpler than that. Here are seven responses from parents and other adults in the life of students that help youth process an experience of this magnitude.
Take Time to Compose Yourself
Realize your body language and vocal tone will communicate more than your words in these early conversations. When we go through something traumatic, we begin to scan our environment for clues about whether we’re safe. For children after a school shooting, a primary focal point for this scanning is the emotional response of the meaningful adults in their world.
For this reason, in early conversations, what our child sees in us has more impact than what we say. Under these conditions, our children can mirror our emotions more than they can manage their own emotions. If we’re too stoic, it creates pressure to be more composed than the situation warrants and stifles expression. If anger or fear is at the forefront of our response, our children will either pull back from us because they’re already overwhelmed or become more disrupted as they mirror our elevated response.
Initiate Conversations with Your Child
Leaders are the ones who have the awareness and courage to ask important questions. Leaders don’t always have the answers, but they don’t allow that to cause them to shy away from initiating the conversation. As parents, that means we lead by asking open ended questions and giving our children the freedom to respond. Open ended questions with a proportional composure (previous point) give our children the freedom to express what they’re thinking and feeling.
After you ask, “How are you doing?” or “Have you had any thoughts about what happened at school?” just listen. Verbal processing is part of your child exploring their memory of the event. Your patient, compassionate listening communicates that these events are safe to talk about now even if they were not safe to live through then. This has a huge impact on re-establishing an environment of safety.
Increase the Time You’re Near Them
The conversations in point two should be ongoing conversations. But if we are going to be periodically checking in, we need to know how to prevent this from feeling like pestering; especially if our children are teenagers. To prevent this, increase the time you are “just near” your child. Be in the room as they play video games, find a reason to go for a drive in the car together, or engage with them as they do their favorite hobby.
You’ve probably noticed that the best conversations with children often happen when we’re “just there” and they get to share what is passing through their mind. When something is on their mind, our presence in the room has a kind of gravity that attracts their thoughts. Increasing the amount of time you are in the same space as your child creates more opportunities for them to share at their initiative rather than our prompting.
Discuss What to Do with Questions and Emotions
An important topic of conversation is what to do with questions or emotions that emerge. Think through different settings your student will be in: school, home, nightmare after bedtime, church, etc. Ask the question, “If you got upset in [blank] setting, do you know what you would do?” Help them brainstorm, so they aren’t trying to figure it out by themselves when they’re upset.
The purpose for this conversation is so that the young person doesn’t feel “trapped” by not knowing what to do. Having a surge of panic in class and not knowing what to do can feel paralyzing. Trauma makes us feel powerless and trapped. We can’t erase the previous experience of feeling trapped, but we can anticipate common future experiences of feeling powerless. Feeling trapped by not knowing what to do with emotions or questions is like putting too much weight on an already broken ankle.
Maintain Home Routines and Rhythms
In the early stages after a traumatic experience the primary objective is to provide an environment of safety that allows the child to begin trusting their surroundings again. The familiar routines of home play an important role in this. Family dinner, game nights, watching sports together, family devotions, bedtime routines, etc. signal that the events at school did not permanently change their world. Some things are different, but many things they enjoy are the same.
These rhythms and routines have the added benefit of circumventing the tendency to isolate after a traumatic experience. These routines provide additional opportunities to be in your child’s vicinity. Per point three, if conversations about the events at school emerge during these times, put the family activity on pause and listen to your child.
Limit Media Exposure and High Drama Entertainment
Seeing news reports, hearing speculation about the shooter’s motives, and listening to the debates about political issues around the event cause more disruption. As you keep informed on these things, update your child on safety measures being enacted by the school. As you give updates, it is good to ask, “What have you heard recently about what’s being done?” to gauge the type of interaction occurring in their peer group and to clarify inaccurate information being circulated.
Be cognizant of the kinds of adult conversations your children can overhear you having. For instance, when you vent on a phone call about what you wish was being done but isn’t, it communicates to your child that things are still out of control. When your child is in earshot, you are not having adult-to-adult conversation, you are still (even if indirectly) still talking to your child and shaping their response.
Practice Good Self-Care
These things are hard for parents too. We get tired. Dropping our children off at school again can be as difficult for us as them going back to school is for them, just in different ways. It can be weeks or months before things feel normal in the community again. If you are going to be consistent at the points above, you need to take care of yourself. Go for a walk. Get adequate sleep. Cut back on a work project or two if you can. It is not selfish to practice good self-care. It is a way to ensure we have the capacity to be the parents we want to be in an extended season of stress.
Chances are, you read these seven points and realize they are not that profound. Honestly, we wish there was something more sophisticated we could do. These things feel pretty basic compared to the magnitude of the school shooting. But these are the kinds of things that re-establish a sense of safety in our children’s world. That is what is most important in our early response.After a school shooting, we want to respond in a way that matches the magnitude of the moment. But the responses that are most helpful are much simpler than that. Click To Tweet
* * * This article is one part of a series on “Parents and Churches Responding to School Violence.”