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My older daughter was less than a week old when the Sandy Hook school shooting happened. I remember clutching her body to my chest and watching cable news, horrified by the world I had brought her into. For days after, I worried about taking her outside our home and into crowded places. I had a pungent, spiky fear that felt very real in the moment. If someone could gun down a bunch of 6-year-olds, I thought at the time, the notion of safety was ephemeral.
There have been more than 200 school shootings in the United States since Sandy Hook, and upward of 2,000 mass shootings, including the recent string of violence at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, at an El Paso Walmart and in Dayton, Ohio. While anyone’s anxiety could spike over so much death occurring in just a week in places that have a patina of wholesomeness, like a store or a food festival, parental anxiety may be particularly painful. Hearing about brave victims like Jordan and Andre Anchondo, who died in El Paso shielding their baby son, Paul, from gunfire, is harrowing.
Parenting is an ongoing process of learning to tolerate the idea “that you cannot entirely keep your children safe,” said Dr. Alexandra Sacks, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist based in New York City, who called this struggle the “existential paradox” of parenthood.
I spoke to two psychiatrists and two pediatricians about how parents — and their children — can deal with increased anxiety and fear in the aftermath of these shootings.
Understand that a few days of increased anxiety is normal. "It’s an appropriate response to a really traumatic event,” said Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of Medicine. If you need more downtime at home in the few days after such upsetting violence, you should feel empowered to take that space, Dr. Lakshmin said. And acknowledging your feelings is key — avoiding or pushing them down won’t make them go away.
Reach out to parent friends. Connecting with your community to talk through fears can help, Dr. Lakshmin said. That’s particularly true for parents of color or those from religious minorities, who may feel especially acute anxiety in this moment because of the white extremist ideology of many recent mass shooters.
Try to stick to your routine. “Every time a shooting happens, our sense of reality falls apart,” Dr. Lakshmin said. “The world you thought you were living in is not the world you’re actually in.” So trying to maintain your routine keeps you tethered to your day-to-day life. Overcoming your fears by taking your kids to the park, to the store or to camp as planned can help to keep the anxiety from overwhelming you.
Channel anxiety into action. Finding a way to contribute in the aftermath of a tragedy, whether by volunteering with organizations that work to prevent mass shootings or by helping a community affected, can help redirect your fears, Dr. Sacks said. The El Paso Times published recommendations for its community, as did the Dayton Daily News.
Step away from the news. If you find that reading or viewing the details of violent events is triggering your anxiety, try to edit your media diet, Dr. Sacks said. “I do hear from parents that they can be drawn to catastrophic things that happen with children in the news,” she said. “It’s incredibly painful to them, but they feel a pull toward these stories in their empathy and identification.”
It’s helpful to minimize kids’ exposure to news as well, said Dr. Jackie Douge, M.D., a pediatrician based in Maryland and a fellow at the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Don’t dodge the hard conversations. If you suspect your kids know about an incidence of mass violence, you should ask them what they have heard, said Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, M.D., an attending physician at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “You don’t want to give so much information that you’re introducing trauma yourself,” Dr. Heard-Garris said. But “you also want them to trust you,” that you’re not hiding difficult things from them. If you start with what they know, you “can try to address any misconceptions, or rumors, any anxieties right then and there,” she said.
While “it’s affecting all children” negatively to hear about particular communities singled out for violence, Dr. Heard-Garris said, parents of kids who hear about their religious or racial communities being targeted can send them the following message: “I know there’s a lot of bad stuff happening in the world, but it’s my job as a parent to try to keep you safe.”
Know when to get help. If you find that you’re anxious for more than a week, or if your sleep, eating or other routines are disrupted, it may be time to talk to a therapist. “If you’re finding these intrusive thoughts are not controllable and they become so loud that you’re taking a circuitous route to get to work, or not letting your kids go to soccer practice, that’s when I would say it’s time to see a therapist and have a more structured space to unpack these fears,” Dr. Lakshmin said.
The same goes for your kids — a little additional fear or anxiety is normal after traumatic events, but if their anxiety is affecting their relationships, sleep or their behavior at school, talk to your primary care provider, Dr. Douge said.
Your child’s fears may be triggered again by school lockdown drills, which millions of children experience each year, and which may leave kids traumatized. All you can do with the recurrence of fear is to reassure kids that these tragic events are still rare, overall, and that their home is a safe place for them to unpack their worries. Tell them: “Your teachers, your doctor, your pastor or rabbi, we love and care about you,” Dr. Heard-Garris said, and that home is “where they have this refuge from this crazy world.”
Want More on Coping With Trauma?
The American Academy of Pediatrics’s website Healthychildren.org has a thorough and straightforward guide to talking to kids about tragedies and other news events.
The New Yorker has a wonderful, heartbreaking piece from the perspective of a pediatrician who treated El Paso’s shooting victims.
Times reporter Jennifer Medina did a wrenching, but ultimately uplifting interview on Monday’s episode of The Daily with the parents of Joaquin Oliver, who died in the Parkland massacre. The Olivers happened to be near El Paso during the shooting.
If you need to talk to children about terminal illness, here are some recommendations.
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
I massaged a scented lotion, which I called “dream cream,” onto my toddler’s forehead and temples to ward off bad dreams. It calmed him immediately and helped him sleep — he even requested it when he was wide awake and feeling anxious.
—Jamila Carrington Smith, Beverly Hills, Mich.
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