The deadly shooting, which left 19 elementary school children and two teachers dead, has stirred up feelings of anxiety for both parents and children. Before the break, some parents mentioned the fear of bringing their children to school in the last days before school let out for the summer.
“I have a 13-year-old daughter that I take to a public school every single day and after this happened, she didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t want to take her to school,” Texas House District 6 Democratic nominee Cody Grace said at a recent vigil held in Tyler.
Local school districts have multi-faceted safety protocol systems in place, but students still may feel anxiety or fear associated with being on campus. How parents and guardians guide their children through these fears is crucial, a local therapist said.
East Texas youth therapist and owner of Tyler-based Purple Crayon Counseling Services, Nelida Medina, advises parents to speak to their children this summer about school safety and help worried students pursue healing before the new school year starts in August.
“It’s a tragedy that it happened toward the end of the school year when our kids are the happiest, because they’re going to be out of school enjoying their summer,” Medina said. “That leaves a lot of room for anxiety and what will happen next.”
How to talk to your child, help them cope
Medina said watching for clues of mental health issues or anxiety is key, and talking to children about safety protocols is important during this time. The motive isn’t to instill fear into the child, but rather educate them and make them feel comfortable in the school setting. She recommended age-appropriate language for these discussions. Depending on if the student is in elementary school or older, the conversations may be slightly different but still convey the same message.
She also mentioned the importance of being realistic about the situation by not lying to the child. They need to understand that these types of tragedies can happen and it’s important to be aware, but they also need to understand how to handle the emotions they feel surrounding potential threats and how to overcome them.
“I’m the kind of person, I don’t usually tell my kids ‘it’s never going to happen’ because I can’t promise people that. But what I can promise them is that the school will try to keep them safe. The teachers are there to keep you safe, they have protocols in place to try to keep you safe,” Medina said.
Because some of these conversations may be a hard reality for children to digest, Medina advises parents to use the open conversation as a teaching lesson and reiterate the important basics such as staying away from strangers and listening to teachers and adults they trust.
Medina also said physically showing the children they are safe can make a huge difference in overcoming their anxiety, such as pointing out the safety precautions a campus is taking — like the layers of locked doors that some campuses have, or security officers guarding the building and hallways. Seeing those protocols in action can play a huge role in a child’s feelings of reassurance, she said.
Preparing children for the hardships of life is part of the work of parenthood, according to Pastor Jim Graff of Faith Family Church in Victoria.
“Unfortunately, our children live in a world where they frequently encounter evil in life or through media. It’s difficult to shield them from everything that goes on in the world around them,” Graff said. “It’s very important that they see the peace our faith gives us amidst the difficult events of life. It’s important as well, to listen to them and hear clearly their concerns. Our role as parents is to equip them with the skills that make their life pleasant and safe.”
Love is another tool to help children cope, said the Rev. James “Jim” DeMent, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Victoria. It’s also OK for parents to show children their vulnerability during these times, he said.
“Having never lost a child to gun violence, I am not qualified to give parenting advice in such circumstances. I do know, however, that a child will want to be assured of a parent’s or guardian’s presence in their lives during this time of great loss and great fear. At times such as these, hugs are more powerful than words,” DeMent said.
Amid each of these teaching moments for children, parents must also be educated, Medina said.
“As parents, I think we need to educate ourselves on what the schools are doing to keep our children safe,” she said. “In order for us to be able to educate our kids and be honest with them on ‘this is what’s going to happen or this what’s not going to happen,’ (we have to) educate ourselves on what the school has to offer the child.”
Another thing Medina said will help students cope is the limiting their exposure to news, as it could lead to anxiety.
“One of the big things that I told my (clients’ parents) of the kids who were struggling was to turn off the news,” she said. “If you want to get the news as a parent and as an adult, get it on your own time when your children are not around, because kids feed off that and our energy and stress.”
As anxiety kicks in, Medina advises parents to expose the child to what is triggering those feelings. For example, children who are anxious about returning to a school campus need to be supported each day and reminded that school is not generally a dangerous place. Reassure them that it’s full of teachers and staff who are there to help them learn and protect them, along with their friends, fun times on the playground, and educational moments.
There is no quick fix to their feelings and they’ll have to get comfortable going to school no matter what, Medina said, but helping them face those feelings and giving them constant reassurance can be helpful.
“When it comes to anxiety, we’re going to have to expose that child into what makes them anxious. Sooner or later they’re going to be like, ‘OK, I’m in this situation and nothing has happened, so this might be OK,’ so that child must have to learn that it hasn’t happened yet so I’m OK.”
Notice the signs
Medina also stressed the importance of paying attention to children who may not speak up about what they’re feeling or know how to convey their anxiety to an adult. Parents should be aware of clues like children not wanting to get out of the car when dropped off at school, crying, holding on and not wanting to leave a parent’s sight can all be signs a child is experiencing some type of fear associated with being at school.
Medina also said other mental health issues can be common among children, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or even depression.
“It affects them in different ways. We talk about anxiety which is the No. 1 thing, and the secondary is PTSD, it’s very very real. Even though they don’t experience it firsthand, just knowing someone that has experienced it or just seeing things on TV constantly can create the secondary PTSD,” she said. “Also depression, being disappointed with the world, but I think that’s more of our middle and high schoolers who are like ‘what is going on? Why am I growing up in a world that’s going crazy?’ … It affects them in several different ways and for the younger kids, it’s the anxiety of ‘What’s going to happen next? Is it going to happen to me?'”
Although there are problems within many school systems across the nation, Medina said she doesn’t blame the education environment as a trigger for the actions of children. She said it’s important for parents to teach morals and to be aware of their child as a whole.
“As parents, we don’t want to see the ugly and bad in our kids,” she said.
Medina said being self-aware can help identify mental health issues in children and serve as a some form of prevention from things getting worse, such as suicide and homicide.
“I don’t think it starts at the school but at home when the parents aren’t attentive to the kids and they’re not watching for their mental health, yes we watch them when they have a fever, a cough or when they have a rash, but when they’re in the room or when they start changing their behaviors, we just think ‘it’s just age, it’s because they’re going through puberty or they’re going through a hard time,’ but we never think ‘maybe they need to see a therapist or they need someone to talk to because they’re not able to talk to me about what’s going on,’” she said.
Medina advises parents to listen and not judge when children open up about their feelings of what they’re going through.
If a child is suicidal and homicidal, she suggests they are taken to an emergency room first and foremost.
“They will assist them there, they will do what they need to do. Don’t wait it out because you never know what could happen to your child,” Medina said.
The Andrews Center in Tyler is a nonprofit that offers mental health services for children as well. Visit 903help.org for a full list of mental health resources for children and adults in the Smith County area.