I have had the privilege of working with young children and their families for many years. This has meant that I have been able to engage people of all ages in conversations about challenging subjects since the beginning of my career. However, I have noticed that the conversations I have had over the past couple of years — as families tried to survive in a pandemic, and as gun violence increased — have carried a different tone. The Uvalde massacre brought rage and grief to everyone that I serve. Children and adults talked about what they knew with horror and asked urgent questions that felt both deeply necessary and also helpless. In talking with my own family, the information available was so overwhelming that we were left with a sense of disembodiment and numbness.
I think that what feels different about having challenging conversations these days is a collective sense of powerlessness and grief. “Anything I do will move too slow, it will be too small”, a colleague shared recently during a consultation. When atrocities happen in our world, and they continue to happen showing an increase in severity and cruelty, our bodies naturally feel as though their sense of agency is reduced, and we begin to wonder whether it is worth continuing to try.
Just in 2022, there have been more than 250 mass shootings many of which have disproportionately taken the lives of Black, and Latinx community members. Further, recent data shows that the age group most impacted by the increase in gun violence is that of children and adolescents. The inability of people with power to pass life-saving legislation for gun control has meant that we have seen an increase in mass shootings and massacres, but there have also been many lives lost to suicide, neighborhood gun violence, and accidents with guns left unsecured. As of 2020, gun violence was found to be the No. 1 cause of death for children and adolescents in the United States.
We also know that gun violence has severe ripple effects on the mental health of the community. Those who have closely experienced a mass shooting, whether they were injured, lost a loved one, or witnessed the event, have a high likelihood of suffering PTSD. Although some information suggests that those who have more distance from the event are not at such a high risk for mental health disorders, it is now known that those who continuously follow the events on the news can suffer from symptoms of acute stress regardless of where they are. It is also important to note that trauma and stress don’t appear or increase equally for everyone. Those who already had a history of trauma and/or were experiencing chronic levels of stress experience much more dysregulation and distress.
For young children learning about these horrific events, feeling scared and worried is natural. It is always important to seek support if a child’s distress doesn’t seem to be relieved within a few weeks, but in general children might show their distress by complaining of stomachaches or body aches. They might also play out their concerns with games or narratives that show what scares them. Sleep and appetite may be disrupted while distress is higher than usual.
I have never met a parent who doesn’t experience sadness and anxiety while their children are frightened. However, the relief and restoration of hope within your child lives in the parent-child relationship, and perhaps here is where parents can begin to regain their sense of agency.
Everyone will need to take time to move through their grief at their own pace. Rest, connect with nature, and be in the presence of loved ones to replenish your energy. Do this as much as necessary and for as long as needed. Once regulation has been restored again, we can return to asking the questions that can move us and our children to our wellness. Engagement and connection will be needed to promote better outcomes in our communities, and we might find ourselves using our rage constructively to refuse to be disempowered.
Here are a few things that you can do as a parent — or as a mentor, a community member, a neighbor, and as a person in relationship to anyone who is feeling overwhelmed or scared:
Allow children to experience their emotions deeply. We can’t change or fix how someone feels, even if we try. Be present with your whole body – no phones, no devices, no interruptions – and validate your child’s fears and worries. How else could anyone feel given what is happening?
Children may ask many questions about the event. However, parents will be more effective if they listen for opportunities to ask questions from their children first. You might ask, “what have you heard already?” or “what do you think happened?”. Any information you gather can serve as your starting point for how you will fill in the blanks. Make sure you are also taking into consideration the age and developmental stage of your child. Too much information is overwhelming and young children can’t integrate too much verbal and cognitive data. Instead, focus reminding your child about what helps them feel safe at home, reassure them that their routines will continue as usual, and ask for their participation on one or two things your family might do to help those affected by the tragedy.
Activism starts now
Children are never too young to begin to understand activism and participation. This includes wearing orange on gun violence awareness day, participating in a rally or protest, even staging a toy protest to promote taking a stand. Youth are reporting high levels of hopelessness and distress; although it is undeniable that civic participation will look different as our younger generations grow, promoting speaking up and raising our voices for the benefit of our community continues to be a strong value and one that can boost mental health.
Let’s keep thinking together in times of hardship. Let’s be there for each other, and let’s create what we want to look forward to in community.