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It’s fair to say the news of another school shooting devastated every mother in the U.S. I can tell you I struggled to get through the rest of the week and was shaky during school drop-offs. The reality is that the school shooting has led to emotions that may be difficult to cope with.

I spoke with Chad Steele, a licensed professional counselor at Thriveworks, who has been trained in working with children through tragedies such as the Texas shooting. He spent 12 years working in a residential treatment center for children between the ages of 5 to 17 and 10 years in an inpatient psychiatric unit with patients ages 4 to 18. Here’s what he said.

1. The news of school shootings is disheartening and concerning to anyone, but especially to parents. How can parents cope with this news?

This news is very alarming for me as a parent of three children (ages 7, 15, and 16). We live in a world where news (good and bad) is delivered almost instantaneously. When bad news is delivered so suddenly, it can be devastating because we, as the general public, are processing the information almost immediately after the tragedy has occurred. However, given we live in a super-connected world, we can also come together quickly to grieve and share strategies for coping on a larger scale. 

Parents can cope with unpleasant emotions related to this tragedy and others by using things like grounding techniques. Remind yourself of what you have around you. This emphasizes what’s real to you at the moment. Combine some grounding with having an attitude of gratitude. Be thankful for the positive things you have in your life – whether that’s your health, family members, friends, your work or local organizations you’re a part of. Also, utilizing a physical outlet for feelings like fear or anger can be helpful. This includes exercising, playing a sport, lifting weights, martial arts, yoga, and engaging in projects around the house that require physical effort can all be helpful ways of channeling your emotions to a productive outlet. Others may be moved to take action to support the affected families of the tragedy. This can take on many forms, including fundraising efforts or offering words of encouragement and validation to the victims’ families. Love those family members within reach and do what you can to ensure their safety. 

2. What are some things parents should keep in mind when digesting information about school shootings or violence?

Chad Steele, a licensed professional counselor at ThriveWorks. Photo courtesy of ThriveWorks

We all know these tragedies are senseless and that can drum up a variety of intense emotions in us, including anger, rage, helplessness, etc. Take steps to ensure that the people in your household are OK and feel safe. That is the primary objective. Then expand outward slightly and converse with neighbors and friends about what can be done to keep your local street, town, and community safe. This may include starting conversations with local educators, law enforcement, first responders, politicians, and lawmakers, etc. What changes need to occur to ensure this doesn’t happen in your community?  Lastly, let’s avoid violence begetting more violence. This just brings more avoidable tragedy into our lives. Let’s work together with the goal of a better tomorrow rather than point fingers, blame shift, and focus on what’s wrong. 

3. When should parents seek professional support in dealing with this news?

If this news causes significant changes in your daily functioning, that is, you are no longer able to do the things you do normally on a day-to-day basis, then seek professional help. A local therapist can help you process what is impacting the changes in your sleeping habits, eating habits, concentration levels, self-care routines, and your socialization. If you need immediate help, call 911 or go to your local emergency department for an emergency mental health evaluation. This can often be the quickest path to a needed medication change or other forms of mental health treatment. 

4. How should parents talk about school shootings or violence with their children? What can you say to a 5-year-old? 

Listen first. Find out what your kids know about the situation and what questions they have. For young children, the concern is not to traumatize them unnecessarily by exposing them to details of the tragedy that they would not encounter elsewhere. Your young children should know, despite how much or little they know about the recent shooting incident, that you will do your very best to keep them safe. This includes what you will do at home to keep them safe as well as talking with school staff to find out what your child’s school is doing to keep them safe on a daily basis. 

5. What can you say to a teenager?

For teens and older children, most of them are probably linked to some form of social media and have learned of the incident via that medium. You can ask them what they’ve seen about the incident. You can ask them for their thoughts about the incident, and review what they can do to keep themselves safe as well as what you are doing. You may ask them for thoughts or ideas about what can be done in your home as well as your community to help everyone feel safer. Also, encourage your older children to report suspicious postings by their peers on social media. It was released in the news that the shooter in Texas made social media posts in the days leading up to the incident that contained him with guns as well as vague threats (“Wait until tomorrow…”). If they see any such posts by kids in their school or community, they should report that to local school counselors and/or law enforcement as well as the app the posts were made on. We often learn of the details and motivations of shooters after the fact. If people show a pattern of posting about violent activity and vague threats, it should prompt someone to have a conversation with this person about their mental state. 

5. What are other aspects that should be considered when talking about mental health and school shootings?

When it comes to mental health and violent incidents like school shootings, bomb threats or other threats of violence, the perpetrators of these incidents are often ostracized and fringe members of the community. They may either feel disenfranchised, ignored by, or that certain members of the community may not care about them. If you notice a kid who is lonely and sullen, reach out and ask how they’re doing. You don’t have to become best friends, but sometimes just asking how someone is doing and offering them an encouraging word can make a difference. 

6. Any other thoughts to consider?

Preventing such violence in the future will work on multiple fronts. Politicians, lawmakers, and law enforcement need to assess the need and resources to increase the protection schools provide for our children and their staff. There also needs to be a closer look at how we treat individuals with mental illness that express threats of violence, and what can be done to protect others from those individuals as well as from themselves.

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San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Have a story idea? Email hoaq@timesofsandiego.com and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.