Talking with your kids about the Texas elementary school shooting — and acknowledging both of your feelings — is important, according to two local mental health experts.
Parents too often put on a brave face and act like everything is OK, but it’s OK and important to acknowledge what happened and how we feel about it, said Rodney Long Jr., a mental health therapist with a private practice in Hudson.
“More than anything, it’s just acknowledging the reality of the sadness behind this,” he said. “We know that this doesn’t happen all the time everywhere, but it happens too frequently that we have to address it head-on.”
But adults and even mental health professionals need to take time to ground themselves and deal with their own emotions from the tragedy first, said Laura Gerak, clinical director of psychology at Akron Children’s Hospital.
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Gerak said she needed some time on Tuesday night to deal with her own emotions.
“I felt deflated as a psychologist,” she said.
“What I would start with is asking parents to spend some time before they’re even talking (to their kids) to catch their breath to…check yourself on the horror even in terms of who you share that with, like a family member or friend or somebody to get it off your chest. Do what you need to do for a few minutes to ground yourself,” Gerak said.
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For Long, who grew up in Akron, his family has personally been touched by gun violence. His wife’s sister was shot and killed by her husband and his sister’s boyfriend was shot and killed by the boyfriend’s grandfather.
Encourage kids to talk about it
Long and Gerak said it’s important for parents to start the conversation with their children.
“So often kids, especially at different ages, just won’t know what to say,” said Long. “A lot of times parents don’t even know how to talk about it, but I think the important part is to open up the lines of communication.”
Gerak said parents can say “it’s an invitation to talk is to tell me what you think.”
You can ask “How did you feel when you heard about it?” because that is an open-ended question, which “first and foremost gives them permission and you’re opening the topic and you’re not trying to fix it,” said Gerak.
Acknowledge their feelings are normal and consider sharing your own feelings — like saying, “I was extraordinarily sad. I cried. You know, I was frustrated — and then asking about theirs, she said.
The level of conversation is going to vary on the age and maturity of the child, said Long.
“You know the conversation based on your child’s development,” Long said.
It’s also OK to have multiple emotions at one time, but you may have to keep those emotions in check appropriately for the age, he said.
“If your 8-year-old sees you angry and yelling about gun control, they won’t understand gun control, but they’ll see yelling. It’s OK to acknowledge that we can be angry and sad at the same time,” Long said.
Give kids time to talk and process
Kids of different ages may or may not want to talk about their feelings and that’s OK, said Gerak and Long.
Some may need some time to process it, so give them that time — and then revisit it in a few days, said Gerak.
Gerak also suggested finding an opportunity based on the child’s age to connect, either in snuggle time or for a teen, offering to go for a smoothie and giving the teen an opportunity to talk.
If your child isn’t ready to talk about it, it may be an opportunity to suggest the next day instead, said Gerak.
“The message is: ‘I care about you. I’m here. I’m going to be present,’ ” she said.
It might also be an opportunity to ask your teen in particular, “Who is a go-to person for you in times like this?” That might not always be the parent, said Gerak. It may be a friend or a teacher or a coach.
Sometimes kids may not want to talk about themselves or their feelings, but asking how the school addressed the issue or how their friends are feeling may open the door to talking, she said.
Don’t politicize issues with kids
While it is important to talk about your feelings, Gerak cautions parents from dismissing a child’s feelings or take a strong political stance with kids.
“I think most people don’t do that these days, but some still do. Don’t politicize it. I know that’s very hard,” she said. “This is not a time for political commentary and you can feel all of that, that can be your belief. Share that with the other adults in your world.”
Kids “don’t need to be hearing that for two reasons: one is now you’ve just completely cut off their ability to feel and to have them formulate their own thoughts, have their own feelings and just grieve and mourn and be afraid,” she said.
How can we help?
Giving kids an opportunity to help, such as having a lemonade stand to raise money for victim families may help your child, said Gerak.
Don’t stoke fears
Fear after a school shooting is a reality, but Gerak said parents should not add to the anxiety by keeping kids home from school.
If your child is nervous about returning to school, work with the child and adults at school on an action plan, such as putting an object from home or a note that is soothing to the child in his or her pocket, she said.
Acknowledge the fear is OK, but also tell them it’s OK to be brave, Long said.
Limit the exposure
It can be easy to want to read and watch all the news about the tragedy, Gerak said, and kids are also getting heavy doses on their social media.
It can be hard to stop or look away, she said. But healthy parameters need to be set — for kids and adults — to turn things off for awhile to do something else and maybe return to it later.
Long said one way to protect children is to help them not get overloaded on social media or constant news about the tragedy.
When to seek help
Gerak said in the initial weeks after a tragedy, it is common for kids to have problems sleeping, headaches, have stomach aches or just be “off.” That may be the way the kids are processing what happened, she said.
“I would give them grace about that stuff,” said Gerak.
But if it lingers and if they’re continuing to have nightmares or sleep is disturbed for a couple of weeks, then it might be worth exploring some professional care, she said.
Gerak also said if the child is showing some big personality changes or also expressing thoughts like “why does it matter anyways or I’m not going to grow up,” parents should seek care.
If your child is withdrawing from friends or activities and grades are slipping, seek assistance, said Long.
Beacon Journal staff reporter Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ To see her most recent stories and columns, go to www.tinyurl.com/bettylinfisher