Psychologist Shares How Parents and Their Children Can Process the Nashville School Shooting
Lisa Elliott, Ph.D., psychologist at Cook Children’s, has seen an increase in conversation about school shootings with her patients and their parents who need help as well.
By Heather Duge
Since the school shooting in Nashville last week, Lisa Elliott, Ph.D., psychologist at Cook Children’s, has seen an increase in conversation about school shootings with her patients and their parents who need help as well.
“It’s on everyone’s minds,” said Dr. Elliott, who has been a psychologist for 29 years. “Many of the moms have brought in their kids and asked for help themselves in navigating this.”
Dr. Elliott relates to these moms. School shootings now hit differently as her son is a middle school principal.
“Prayer gets me through,” she said.
We asked Dr. Elliott how to help children process this tragedy, along with tips for parents themselves.
You can also listen to the recent Raising Joy Podcast with Dr. Jillian Peterson, founder of The Violence Project, as she informs listeners about her research findings related to mass shooters and what parents can do to help prevent the next school shooting.
What advice do you have for parents who are struggling with how to share the news of the school shooting with their children? How do they know when it is appropriate to talk with them?
The most critical part of reacting to this in front of children is to stay calm and always be honest with your responses.
To begin with, it all depends on how the kids process and handle emotions. You can wait to see if they say anything about it, and if they do, address it right away. I can tell you that late elementary, middle and high school students are talking about it. Do not minimize their concerns and immediately correct any inaccurate information. Let them talk first and lead the conversation, finding out what issues they want to talk through
Walk through the worst-case scenarios and talk to the school if needed, letting your child know all the safety measures in place. For some children, this kind of information empowers them.
Also, help them to know how to be observant – to be the helpers. We have to instill hope – Fred Rogers from Mister Rogers shared that his mother told him to “Always look for the helpers” in times of sorrow, tragedy, fear and anxiety, because if you also see the helpers you know there is hope.
At home, reinforce ideas of security and safety and maintain routines, with frequent check-ins.
How can parents reassure their children if they are struggling themselves to feel that everything will be OK?
Remember that to be the best parent to your child, you have to take care of yourself first – just like the airplane scenario with oxygen masks when parents are told to put their mask on before their child. It is important to model healthy coping as children take their cues from you. They need to see we care, and it is OK for them to see you express emotion, however, you do not want to overwhelm them.
Effective ways to cope include speaking with other parents at school, forming/joining a parent support group, leaning on family members for support, eating nutritious meals, exercising, meditating, praying and speaking with your child’s school counselor for advice on resources or books on supporting yourself and your family through a school-related tragedy.
How do parents know when their child’s anxiety is beyond what they are able to help with and they need to pursue professional counseling?
Watch for these symptoms – an increase in physical complaints such as stomachaches or headaches, change in appetite, nightmares, sleep disruptions, separation issues, panic symptoms, not wanting to participate in social activities, and increased anger.
If any of these persist for more than a few weeks, seek professional help.
How do we shield our children from too much information with social media, TV, etc.?
Do all you can to limit your child’s exposure to the news, and even adult conversations, as children are always listening. We know from trauma research that violent images can cause secondary trauma. And parents need to model that as well by limiting exposure.
What if children do not want to go back to school after hearing the news?
Let your child have one mental health day and do a lot of pouring into them and making memories together. Talk with them about how to handle problems and let them know we can still find joy. Do not let it be more than one day or it will only exacerbate the fear.
What are some tangible ways parents can provide comfort to children?
Keychains with a small photo frame where you can place a family photo have helped many of the parents I see comfort their children. Attach it to your child’s backpack or lunchbox so they feel close to family while at school. Matching bracelets they can wear also help – anything that makes them feel connected to you and your family.