Uvalde School Shooting: Cook Children's Experts Share How Parents Can Discuss Tragedy, Support Their Children
On Wednesday, May 25, Cook Children's hosted a live chat with Lisa Elliott, Ph.D., Daniel Guzman, M.D., and Cameron Brown, D.Min.
Our hearts are broken and hurting for the children, teachers, adults and their loved ones affected by the devastating school shooting in Uvalde. We want to help parents and caregivers as they navigate these tough conversations and emotions.
Kia Carter, M.D., Kristen Pyrc, M.D., and Lisa Elliott, Ph.D., of the Cook Children’s Behavioral Health team discuss what parents and caregivers should know and keep in mind.
What should parents say if their children ask them about what happened in Uvalde?
Dr. Pyrc: I think it is important for parents to be honest with their kids in an age-appropriate way when they ask questions about world events. Kids have a way of asking questions that we as adults don’t have answers to. What helps me is to pause, take a breath, and ask a question like ‘well, what makes you ask that?’ Their answer can tell you what they are curious about or scared of and help guide that conversation.
Dr. Elliott: It is extremely important for parents to be open with their children and be willing to talk. Talking with your child about frightening and scary things helps reduce and manage fear. It helps them to know that their parents empathize and care about their feelings and thoughts.
Children are more anxious when they are dealing with the unknown in general so parents need to be role models to help them feel secure and safe and model sharing of feelings. It is always better to address subjects directly rather than avoid them and be willing to start the conversation. Your child needs to know that you want to know how they are coping and that you care about them.
Reassure and reinforce safety and security. If possible, share what you know about what your child’s school does to ensure their safety. And always be truthful – that builds and reinforces a foundation of trust. Answer questions that fit their developmental age and if you do not know an answer, it is OK to be honest, but then do what you can to help find an answer.
An additional side note that is important – kids take their cues from us as parents. They need to see that we care, and it is OK for them to see us express/experience emotion and show them that it is normal after tragic events, but we do not want to overwhelm them with our emotions. We need to model for them how to engage in healthy self-care.
How do parents avoid feeling numb to this?
Dr. Pyrc: I am heartbroken this morning that I have to send my kid to school.
Dr. Carter: Parents are having to cope with this tragedy just as much as kids are and it's important that parents also process their feelings with other adults, support/communicate with their child's school staff and open up about their feelings and concerns.
This is a good time to participate in school board meetings, PTA/PTO organizations and maybe forming/joining a parent support group so that parents can feel their voices are being heard and so they can have others to relate to that are dealing with similar feelings. It's also important to be a model for your child but also acknowledge and validate that some of the feelings your child is having are the same that a parent and adult can have. This is a great time to model how to deal with traumatic experiences and model that being open and talking about it can be helpful for everyone.
How does a parent reassure their kids when I can’t reassure myself that everything will be OK?
Dr. Elliott: This one is hard. We can’t guarantee to ourselves, let alone our children, that nothing bad will happen. We can provide reassurance that these tragic events are relatively rare and that we will do everything we can to keep them safe. Our children do take their cues from us and if they see us as highly anxious they will feel more anxiety. Do your best not to project your fears onto your children. It is critical we engage in and model self-care.
Dr. Pyrc: For young elementary-age kids, they are pretty concrete so reminding them of your school's safety features, which may include locked doors and a school safety officer who will protect you, can be helpful. If my daughter is anxious, I will probably walk her to the door of the school where she knows the doors will lock and pick her up after school to help. Older kids will poke holes in the logic that locked doors and a safety officer can keep kids safe, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. I would walk them through worst-case scenarios and problem-solve the best way to get themselves to safety. Even though most parents will feel overwhelmed by this conversation, honestly as they should, I think it’s important to remain calm ourselves because our kids will look to us to determine how much anxiety they should have.
What are the different responses for elementary-aged children vs teens and high schoolers?
Dr. Elliott: As noted above, parents need to be willing to talk about this, even if that means they bring the conversation up. Bringing up the subject may be different for different ages.
With middle school and high school kids, it is often best to ask them directly. Share that you care and want to know what they know about the event, how they feel and how you can help.
With elementary school kids, you may have to share that something tragic has happened, ask if other students/friends are talking about it and encourage them to talk to you. For young children, it is best to be brief and give limited or simple information – answer their questions but do not give too many specifics or too much detail.
Should parents bring this up to children, if they don’t ask?
Dr. Elliott: I believe so. It is a guarantee that kids are talking about this, it will be all over social media and on nonstop news – so yes bring it up. And talking about news – every piece of research and experts will all tell you to limit exposure to media – and this is true for all ages. We know from trauma research that violent images can cause secondary trauma. And parents need to model that as well by limiting their exposure. It is also important to be mindful of adult conversations – kids are listening all the time.
Dr. Pyrc: I think this honestly depends on the age and temperament of the kid. I don’t know that telling a preschooler makes a ton of sense and would instead ask them when they got home from school how their day went and if they heard anything scary at school. I think if they are 10 or older, you have to tell them because they will hear about it from classmates. By communicating the events in a calm way, you get to support your kid and answer any questions they may have.
Can you talk about how parents should take care of themselves in order to help their kids?
Dr. Carter: Parents have to remember that in order to be the best parent to their child, parents have to take care of themselves first. This is just like the airplane scenario with oxygen masks where parents are told to put their masks on first and then help their child.
It's important to find effective ways to cope during tragedy, which may include speaking with other parents at school, forming/joining a parent support group, and leaning on family members for support. Also exercising, meditation, and continuing your prayer/religious practices help relieve stress. Speak with their child's school counselor for advice on resources or books on supporting yourself and your family through a school-related tragedy.
Dr. Pyrc: I think it’s very important that parents acknowledge their own anxiety about sending their kids to school today and sadness about what happened. Sometimes when we have a national tragedy, there will be 24/7 news coverage of the event. It’s easy to obsess about all of the details and be glued to our TV or phone, but I don’t think this is helpful for our mental health. I would put a time limit on the amount of time I spend reading up on the event. When your mind wanders back to questions about the event, remind yourself that you have 20 min after dinner to read up, and after you catch up on the event, put down your phone and connect with people you love.
There has been a lot going on in the world, such as war, the pandemic, mass shootings and inflation. Can you talk about how important it is to empathize with your children, even if you might not have all the answers to a tragedy like this?
Dr. Elliott: I have used this story/example so many times when I have worked with children/teens who have witnessed or experienced tragic events from school shootings to tornados. It is the story that Fred Rogers from Mister Rogers shared about his mother. She told him to “always look for the helpers” in times of sorrow, tragedy, fear and anxiety because if you see the helpers you know there is hope.
Dr. Pyrc: The best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to connect with them, tell them you love them, and hold them a little tighter because we are grateful they were able to come home.
Ways to help and ways to find support:
National Parent Helpline run by Parents Anonymous to get emotional support from a trained advocate: 1-855-427-2736
Tragedies such as these highlight the importance of donating blood. Giving blood supports nearby hospitals and rebuilds their supply for patients. Click here to sign up to donate blood at your local Carter BloodCare.
The next blood drive at Cook Children's is set from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 14. Register for a time slot here.
Information from the National Association of School Psychologists about tips for administrators and how parents can talk to children about violence.
About Cook Children's
Cook Children’s Health Care System embraces an inspiring Promise – to improve the health of every child through the prevention and treatment of illness, disease and injury. Based in Fort Worth, Texas, we’re proud of our long and rich tradition of serving our community. Our not-for-profit organization is comprised of nine companies, including our Medical Center, Physician Network, Home Health company, Northeast Hospital, Pediatric Surgery Center, Health Plan, Health Services Inc., Child Study Center and Health Foundation. With more than 60 primary, specialty and urgent care locations throughout Texas, families can access our top-ranked specialty programs and network of services to meet the unique needs of their child. For 100 years, we’ve worked to improve the health of children from across our primary service area of Denton, Hood, Johnson, Parker, Tarrant and Wise counties. We combine the art of caring with leading technology and extraordinary collaboration to provide exceptional care for every child. This has earned Cook Children’s a strong, far-reaching reputation with patients traveling from around the country and the globe to receive life-saving pediatric care. For more information, visit cookchildrens.org.