The world feels heavy this week. As news of the Uvalde school shooting in Texas began to emerge, the senseless evil of it all felt suffocating. Innocent children lost, families left grieving, and a country left with a frayed heart and fear at every turn.
The weight of it all is overwhelming. It has left us all feeling helpless and confused. How do we move on from here? How long until it will feel safe to drop our kids off at school again? How do we cope with this horrific violence? And perhaps most daunting, how do we help our kids through this?
There is no easy answer when faced with an event so tragic and traumatizing. There is no magic wand we can wave to make it all disappear and take away the pain. But here are a few things we can do to help muddle our way through the aftermath of the heartbreak.
Process your own emotions first.
Before you approach your kids you need to deal with your own emotions.
What happened at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas is heartbreaking and incredibly upsetting. There are simply no words to describe the anger, outrage, and grief we are feeling.
Know that whatever you are feeling is okay and allow yourself to feel it. Reach out to someone you trust to process your emotions so you don’t dump your own outrage, fear, and grief onto your kids.
Take care of yourself before you talk to your kids so you can be fully present with their emotions about this event. We need to be in a space where we can stay calm, grounded, and present. Our kids need us to be in a state where we will not react out of our own high emotions.
Ask them how they are feeling.
Don’t assume what your kid is feeling or what their concerns might be. They may be different from yours. One kid might be fearful for their own safety. Another may feel intense grief for the kids and families. For others, they may be concerned about their friends who are struggling with processing the news. Some may be trying to make sense of the polarizing opinions on what needs to be done to stop the violence. They may be feeling a combination of these or something else entirely.
When you approach this conversation, the main thing to keep in mind is to truly listen to what they are saying and be mindful to not project your own feelings on them.
Ask them what they are hearing.
Our kids get a lot of information online that we aren’t even aware of. Asking them what they are hearing about the shooting is a good starting point to begin the discussion.
The amount of information, perspectives, and details that are being put in front of us are overwhelming even for our mature adult minds. How much harder is all of that for an underdeveloped teenager’s mental state? Their friends are likely talking about the event as well, and our kids may be taking on the anxiety and confusion of their peers. They may feel it is their responsibility to help their friends navigate this tragedy and thus adding a whole new added stressor to themselves. Asking what they are hearing gives them a chance to process it out loud, and gives you a chance to find out where they are at.
Don’t force them to talk about it if they are not ready.
Tweens and teens can be more private and closed-lipped with parents and caregivers about how they are feeling at this age. They may still be processing what they feel, or they may not be as profoundly impacted as we expect them to be. Either response is normal and it is okay if your teen isn’t ready for an open discussion about how they are feeling. Simply reassure them that you are here for them if they want to talk about it, and don’t push or prod to force the conversation.
Listen to their concerns and validate their feelings.
When our kids express their feelings and concerns it can be hard to hear. Our natural inclination is to soothe their painful feelings and immediately reassure them. It’s important to remember what they need most right now – for us to listen and allow them to express their feelings and process out loud what is going on inside of them.
There is no need to try and find a silver lining because that feels dismissive of their feelings and concerns. The key here is allowing them the opportunity to fully express their fears without judgment or “saving”. Instead, let them know that you hear them and that what they feel is valid and makes sense. Then, let them brainstorm with you on how to address their concerns.
Here are some specific examples of how to address concerns your teen may have:
You might ask them if they are aware of their school’s safety policies, “What is the school doing to ensure the safety of your school? Do you know what those are? How do you feel about how they are being proactive? What are some steps we can take that could help you and your friends feel safer?”
If they don’t know the answers to these, say something like “Let’s find out together.” and let them be a part of the solution as you work to find out. This shows you took their concern seriously but also helps alleviate their fears by showing a plan is in place to protect them. By giving them ownership of being part of the solution, you give them back a sense of control over their lives – something we all feel is missing after events like this.
Your kids are exposed to a lot of differing opinions of how the violence should be handled and their opinions may differ from yours. When this happens it’s a knee-jerk reaction to correct them or convince them to see things your way. Avoid politicizing it and allow them to share their thoughts and feelings. Be open to hearing their perspective, they may have some surprisingly insightful ideas. Again, allow them to have their own opinions and accept those opinions without pressure or condemnation. They need to feel safe right now, not judgment.
Lastly, encourage them to limit social media coverage and limit your own consumption.
Listening to the devastating details of the shooting over and over again can be traumatizing. Discuss with your tweens and teens that it’s important for us to pay attention to how we are feeling when we are watching the news or reading things in the media. Express to them when you are taking a step back from the news, explain why it is important for your mental health, and encourage them to do the same.
Watch your kids for signs of stress.
You know your kids better than anyone. Keep an eye on them for any indication that this news is impacting them in a deeper way. Even the ones who appear to not be overly concerned about it or who play off their feelings lightly may be internalizing it more than they are letting on. Continue to make yourself a space place for them to share thoughts and feelings, but be watchful for any changes in mood or behavior that indicates they are struggling.
Give them hope.
Our kids need something to grab hold of when life gets hard. After you have listened to your tweens and teens’ feelings, thoughts, and concerns, give them hope and things that they can grab a hold of – such as praying for the families who are grieving, our country, and wisdom for our leaders. You can look for ways together of how to help the families impacted by this tragedy, or write notes of encouragement to their own teachers and police officers. By giving them something concrete and helpful to do, you will empower them to feel like they can make a difference in what can feel like a very dark world.
It’s okay to not have all the answers. What happened is evil and it’s hard to make sense of it. We are all trying to grapple with such an atrocity. We can’t fix the broken and awful pieces of the world. But when everything else is out of control, we can love our people a little harder and do our best to be their shelter in the storm.