The recent mass shooting at a Florida high school is a solemn reminder of how senseless tragedy can strike in an instant. Schools, where our children go to learn, play and grow, are intended to be a safe haven.
But this view of our schools - and many other places in our world - can naturally shift as we see these violent incidents continually unfold. And out of love and protection, parents might fear sending their children back to school. So, if you're a parent, how should you feel? And how do you react in a healthy way?
We spoke to Catherine Nesov, MS, LMHC, at Florida Hospital's Center for Behavioral Health, who offers some support and guidance for all of our parents out there who may be searching for how to cope and move forward in the wake of this heartbreaking event.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
One of the most important things that you can do in a time of tragedy is recognize and validate your feelings.
"It's normal to feel a whirlwind of emotions. As a parent, you might feel like you have to be the protector or the strong one and not be vulnerable, but acknowledge that it's okay for you to have many different feelings - disappointment, fear, desensitization, grief, disconnectedness - whatever they may be, give yourself time to settle into them," explains Nesov.
Another strategy for coping is to check-in on your perspective. "Remember what your perspective on life and your child's school environment was before the tragedy and set a goal to get back to that perspective once you work through your feelings," suggests Nesov.
Talk to Your Children
It's essential to allow your children time to reflect on and express their feelings, too.
Nesov advises, "Children need to be able to show their feelings and talk about them. Then, when a family expresses their feelings together, they can develop a plan to move away from fear. Fear shouldn't paralyze you and your family from living life."
Nesov offers some tips on talking to your children about school tragedies:
- Talk to children often with frequent check-ins several weeks after a tragedy.
- Know any limitations or boundaries that you have as a parent and have a plan to provide your child a support system or resource to talk to if that subject comes up.
- Embrace whatever emotion they express; any feeling is okay.
- Talk in an age-appropriate way. Younger children might need stories to relate to complex events or feelings, where teenagers might require a more straightforward communication style.
- Assure your child that you will find them more support, if needed, through guidance counselors, teachers or mental health professionals.
"Parents can regain some control over their child's environments by getting involved," says Nesov.
Reach out to your school and county administrators to find out their response, safety and disaster plans. Find out what your local police and fire departments are doing to help protect your community. Learn about what resources your child's school is making available to support kids emotionally as well as protect them physically. And if you are not satisfied with what you learn, raise your voice and promote change.
Nesov adds, "Making a difference is what helps heal, and kids can make a difference too by being an advocate for themselves and their community's safety."
She advises that communicating with kids to help them identify red flags for dangerous behavior among their peers can help bring them purpose and keep others safe. "We have a beautiful gift called intuition, and children should be advised to tell an appropriate adult if their intuition says something isn't right."
Make a Family Safety Plan
No family wants to think about having to deal with a disaster; however, having a safety plan can empower parents and their children.
"Sitting down as a family and reviewing the school's safety plan as well as developing a family safety plan can reduce some of the fear," advises Nesov.
She explains that while county safety officials often have resources for such plans, some helpful things to include could be:
- Memorized and written down phone numbers of parents, children and emergency contacts
- A contact plan (who to contact and how if cell phones are not available)
- A family code word, phrase or number for different emergencies/events
Lean on Your Support System
"Fear is pervasive, but leaning into your faith, spirituality and support networks can diminish that fear," explains Nesov.
She adds that parents can find support systems of other parents. Whether it's online, a public forum, religious group, community organization or school, parents should know that they are not alone.
Allow Time to Heal
Nesov explains that it's appropriate for parents to feel "stuck" in feelings surrounding these tragedies for some time. "Parents shouldn't feel bad about feeling fearful even a week or more after these events. The brain's response system in these cases is fight, flight and breathe, and it will stay there as long as it needs to," she describes.
Nesov suggests some additional strategies to help parents move passed the stress and fear:
- Professional counseling
- Reading positive topics
- Acts of altruism
But if fear and anxiety about acts of violence are impeding on your life functioning, ability to parent or maintain your connectedness to others, she advises to seek help from a mental health professional.
For more information on behavioral health services, please call (855) 303-DOCS.