When caring adults do things that are less than helpful in the aftermath of a tragedy, it is not with ill-intent. We want to be helpful for our child or other students involved in these horrific events. But there are times when our good intentions are counterproductive. If you find yourself prone to one of these responses, don’t feel bad. But do understand why each response is less than helpful and refrain.

  1. Too Much Trauma Education Too Soon

Understanding this point is helped by noting some of the mistakes made in the history of trauma care. Trauma was initially observed in the military. It was called being shell shocked. As trauma was understood, it was initially approached in a comparable manner to treating addiction or cancer; with the mindset that early intervention was best. The thought was, if we teach soldiers what trauma is and the effects it has, this will reduce their symptoms.

While reasonable, this proved ineffective for at least two reasons. First, what can be treated is post-traumatic stress, not the trauma itself. A robust education about PTSD does not diminish the magnitude of the traumatic event. Second, giving the traumatized person a list of maladaptive responses to look for feeds the hypervigilance that is common after trauma. Being educated on “problems” to look for in how you’re responding doesn’t foster establishing an environment of safety. The symptoms of PTSD are not “choices” the individual can make or unmake, but more like reflexes within our emotions.

It is good for you as a parent, grandparent, teacher, or pastor to know the symptoms of PTSD that commonly manifest in children. We will cover that in the final article in this series. If these experiences persist for more than a month, then pursuing counseling is wise. But initially, having an opportunity to just “feel and respond” to what happened without trying to “fix” that response is more helpful. Trying to fix something you haven’t had time to experience is a form of rushing.

At this stage, the simple message would be, “Traumatic experiences are hard. It is not a sign of weakness for this to impact you. It’s going to impact everyone who was there in some way. The main thing is for you to feel safe talking about how it impacts you. You don’t have to face this alone.”

  1. Minimizing as Pseudo Comfort

We would like to think this point is unnecessary. But if you have ever heard the kind of comfort people try to offer at a funeral or after a miscarriage, you realize it is needed. When people don’t know what to say about a problem, they try to shrink the problem. This is form of self-comfort rather than care for the other person.

What might minimizing for pseudo comfort sound like?

  • “It won’t be long before you enjoy school just like you did before.”
  • “You can’t live bracing for the worst. It robs your ability to enjoy life.”
  • “God is going to use this to impress on everyone how precious life is.”[1]
  • “You need to focus on being grateful God protected you instead of fearing that he won’t.”
  • “The sooner you can forget about what happened, the sooner it won’t matter.”

These statements are meant to comfort or redirect. There are elements of truth in them. What makes them unhelpful is their pace. Yes, we believe our student will enjoy school again, but that isn’t “next” for them as they process the shooting at their school. When we say things like this, we communicate that it is the expectation for where they should be.

At this stage, the simple message would be, “Things are hard right now. That’s normal after something this big happens. It’s not a sign of weakness for you to be afraid or dread going to school. Things won’t always be this hard, but for as long as things are heavy, I’m here to carry the load with you. You don’t have to face this alone.”

  1. Using Opportunity for Political Education

Here is your guiding principle: talk with your child about the things that help them navigate their world. They’ve got enough to process without the adults in their life trying to educate them on relevant political policies. They’re not 18. They can’t vote. Formulating their political opinions can wait.

Do political conversations need to be had? Yes. Are they important? Yes. Are they helpful for a student processing a school shooting? No. Talking about things that the student cannot control and are unlikely to change quickly adds to the student’s sense of powerlessness. At best, it is a distraction. But the more significant effect is that it communicates that what we have to say to them, as the caring adults in their world, is not that relevant to the immediate struggles they’re facing.

  1. Imposing Our Unprocessed Emotions

Do we have lots of unprocessed emotions about our child being in mortal danger? Absolutely. Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not. Do we need an outlet to process these things? Yes. Is that outlet our children? No.

In the aftermath of a tragedy, when we process our emotions with our child, we are adultifying them. We are asking them to support us, instead of us supporting them. This is an unhealthy role reversal.

It is helpful to acknowledge to our child that processing these things is hard. That validates that their struggle to know how to respond and understand their emotions is normal. It invites further disclosure from our child. But when we slip into emoting our fear or anger with our child, that puts them in another environment where they are being asked to respond beyond their capacity and, thereby, is a retraumatizing experience.

This means we, as parents, need to have other adult friends or a counselor with whom we are processing our experience. Sharing the benefits of these conversations with our children can be a helpful way to invite further disclosure from them. It might sound like, “Hearing you talk about your fear of going back to school reminds me of when I was talking to [name] about things that make me afraid. Going to school is not as easy as it was before. Talking with them helped me realize [blank]. I hope our conversations can play a similar role for you.” We want to model that it’s okay to be in process rather than process our emotions with our children.

But there are times when our good intentions are counterproductive. If you find yourself prone to one of these responses, don’t feel bad. But do refrain. Click To Tweet

* * * This article is one part of a series on “Parents and Churches Responding to School Violence.”

[1] For more on too quickly emphasizing what God will do through an experience of intense suffering, see the article “Making Peace with Romans 8:28” at bradhambrick.com/Romans828.