Healthy Mind

How To Care for Your Mental Health as a Parent in the Aftermath of a School Shooting

Photo: Getty Images / MoMo Productions
On Tuesday requests for therapy sessions started flooding into the office of clinical psychologist Lizzy Weisinger, PsyD, in Los Angeles shortly after news broke of a shooting in Uvalde, Texas, at Robb Elementary School, further deflating a nation still reeling from a mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, on May 14.

Inquiries came from parents wanting to schedule appointments for their children, but also for themselves. And Dr. Weisinger is now working 12-hour days to meet the demand for mental health support such traumatizing experiences percipitate.

“There’s no rule book for this.” —Lizzy Weisinger, PsyD.

Anxiety over school shootings is on the rise—increasing from 15 percent of parents being fearful about school safety in 2008, to 24 percent in 2017, and 34 percent in 2019, according to a Gallup study. The climb is emotionally exhausting. And in all likelihood, if you were to poll parents today, that number would be higher. “Parents are scared,” says Dr. Weisinger. But beneath that fear is another emotion that’s equally disturbing: helplessness. If addressed, however, its dissipation can offer a sense of empowerment in an unpredictable world.

Here are 4 ways parents can support their mental health

1. Validate YOUR feelings first

The sheer nature of random acts of violence makes them hard to prepare for and process. “If it’s a situation like bullying, most parents feel somewhat equipped, but there’s no rule book for this,” Dr. Weisinger says. Just like on an airplane, though, it’s important that parents put their oxygen masks on first, so to speak, by not shutting down or dismissing their emotions in order to prioritize the needs of anyone else. How can you help a child feel their feelings, if you haven’t felt your own?

While you’re doing this, keep in mind that there’s no “correct” way to respond to tragedy and trauma. "Parents may feel a great deal of pressure to do it all right, to be the perfect parent, and truthfully, there is no such thing,” says Kyler Shumway, PsyD. Instead, he says to focus on doing your best, being self-aware of how you’re feeling, and how you’re communicating those feelings both verbally and non-verbally to your kids.

2. Practice self care that’ll calm your nervous system

After traumatic events—even if they don’t impact you directly—you may experience difficulty sleeping, feel more irritable, or feel emotionally disconnected, numb, or fatigued, says Tara Krueger, PsyD, national director of family therapy services at Newport Healthcare. “These are common reactions to increased emotional stress and signal to increase your efforts to care for yourself during this time,” she says.

“The only way to be a good parent is to take good care of yourself first.” —Kyler Shumway, PsyD.

Doing things that calm your nervous system is key to deactivate your body’s stress response and get out of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. Dr. Weisinger advises conscious breathing and sensory based exercises. “Anything you can do to get your brain present mitigates anxiety and overwhelming feelings,” she says. Box breathing is a beneficial practice to explore for this purpose as is a grounding technique called the butterfly hug.

You can watch how to give yourself a butterfly hug below:

Additionally, Dr. Shumway suggests social time with other adults, working with a mental health professional where needed, carving out time for fun and play, and turning off the news if it becomes overwhelming, triggering, or too much. “The only way to be a good parent is to take good care of yourself first,” he says.

3. Talk it out

When you’ve connected to your emotions and calmed your nervous system enough to not feel reactive, it's time to have an open, honest, and age-appropriate conversation with children. Doing so will hopefully lower your anxieties as you’ll know how they feel and be able to tackle their concerns head-on. However, Dr. Shumway warns parents to not redirect their fears into positivity, and says it’s okay to reply with, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure how to answer that,” where necessary. “If your child is afraid of being killed while attending school, that is a valid, appropriate fear to have [right now],” he says. “If you tell them ‘don't be scared,’ or if you try to act like you don’t feel any fear, that invalidates their feelings, and you may unintentionally gaslight them.”

Dr. Weisinger agrees, adding that parents often unconsciously dump their fears onto their kids. “You shouldn’t say, ‘Everything will be fine, there’s no need to worry,’ because that minimizes their concerns,” she explains. “Rather, validate them with, ‘It must be really scary for you,’ or ‘What can we do to help you not feel that way?’ It’s all about reassurance. You can pretend nothing’s wrong, but they know and can see things are happening.”

4. Take action

Perhaps one of the best antidotes to helplessness is action. “Doing something constructive such as joining an advocacy effort or community service project can put emotions to work and alleviate feelings of helplessness,” says Dr. Krueger.

Not all of these measures may be necessary to support your mental health as a parent in the aftermath of a tragedy like a school shooting or other traumatic event that impacts you and your children. Or perhaps, it’ll take more than the tips above to help you make sense of such non-sensical circumstances. Keep in mind that this process will look different for everyone, yourself included.

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