After the news of the school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas this week, we’re all (yet again) processing a complicated myriad of feelings: grief, unsafety, fear, sadness, despair, anger, frustration, numbness, and much more. Our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist appeared on WNYC’s All Of It with Alison Stewart to respond to listeners’ concerns about how they—and their children—can cope with the emotional devastation of ongoing gun violence.
In the segment “Coping After Texas Elementary School Shooting,” several callers express feelings of powerlessness about the seemingly unending mass shootings while also having to find ways to discuss the shooting with their children. Offering some guidance in having these conversations with children, Matt articulates that the discussion will depend on the age of the child (or children). For instance, very young children may not need to know about the Uvalde shooting unless they saw something on TV or heard information from an older child or a classmate. “It’s okay to protect them from that,” Matt says. In contrast, teens may actually know more than their parents do. Matt explains, “There is a kind of humility in deferring to them” in conversation.
For older elementary school and middle school-aged children, Matt encourages parents to sit down and talk them through the basic facts of the shooting. Kids often struggle with a baseline understanding. The news is confusing and they don’t yet have the comprehension we do as adults. When in doubt, talk about it rather than conveying to kids that this is something we’re not supposed to talk about or they have to deal with on their own. Instead, Matt emphasizes, give them “the emotional guidance and support to make sense of it and process these feelings, which we can do as parents even though we ourselves are struggling.”
Acknowledging and making room for a child’s feelings means parents should also do some processing on their own and with friends, family, coworkers, and in therapy. Matt notes that this “doesn’t mean we need to hide our own feelings.” But, parents should make sure these conversations are mainly about the child and their needs in order to guide them “through making some sense of things that don’t make much sense…”
That being said, though not mentioned on WNYC, there are instances when parents get emotional in front of kids. That’s okay. Seeing our struggles now and again is important for them to see our humanity, recognize we can struggle, and witness how we recover from that. When this happens, address it directly rather than ignore it. Say something like: “Mommy got upset. This is hard and sad. You’re okay—that doesn’t mean you’re unsafe. Mommy will work through it. Mommy is getting help and will call your Aunt/her therapist/her friends.” The message here is that the parent is going to do what’s needed to be the adult and take care of the child.
It’s also essential for parents to assure kids that they’re safe going to school, while at the same time, recognizing the pain of the shooting and the political questions about gun violence. This is a tricky distinction for both adults and kids. Some kids weren’t safe at school and children generally know that. Yet, parents need to help their kids “get to a place of feeling safe.” Matt suggests saying: “This is overwhelming, awful, and sad for us to take in. But, it’s also really rare. You have every reason to believe you’re safe in your school and classroom.”
For adults, part of the shootings—those 19 little lives and the lives of their two teachers—simply have to be grieved. Matt reminds listeners to “allow room for whatever feelings come, but remind yourself that we do have the capacity to feel awful and process things.” Along with taking some space to feel bad, Matt also suggests finding activities that “are loving to yourself and the people around you” for some localized stability. This doesn’t mean ignoring the tragedy or denying difficult feelings, but finding an activity, whether community organizing, engaging in worship, or making music, that helps with the immediate disruption. This way, as Matt explains, we can “get back out there and participate in making a better world.”