These last few weeks in the United States have rocked many of our worlds as gun violence has killed innocent people in subway cars, a grocery store, a church and most recently in an elementary school close to us here in Texas. It is devastating that the gun violence has disproportionately targeted Black and Brown communities, and was perpetrated in the common, everyday places where we all go, where we travel, where we gather and nourish ourselves, and where we send our children to learn and grow.
In the face of the tragic loss of life, many of us, especially parents, have tears in our eyes today. Some may feel shocked and numb. Others of us may feel fierce rage and protectiveness. And others may connect with devastation, vulnerability, and grief. Wherever we might be finding ourselves in our feelings or not feeling-- it is okay to not be okay right now. There is no right or wrong way to feel.
It’s important to name that nothing about this is normal, though we are still attempting to hold a steady rhythm for our children with school drop-offs, showing up for work, making decisions about the upcoming summer break, and what to cook for dinner tonight. Being explicit that this is not normal helps our brain and body begin to orient to what we are facing and holding: the too-bigness, too-muchness, the overwhelm. Our body may be processing the trauma in ways that feel familiar or completely new, and that is okay. Our histories, different identities, and daily experiences will all shape how the news of the gun violence impacts us. With the shooting at the elementary school in Uvalde being so close to the University, many in our community have roots in the area--family members and dear friends who are impacted.
It's okay to not know how to respond at all.
It’s okay to sob and ask for a hug from a dear friend or loved one.
It’s okay to be angry at witnessing horror upon horror.
It’s okay to be afraid, shaking, exhausted.
It’s okay to feel numb, and maybe even frozen.
It’s okay to log off and not look at the news.
It’s okay to acknowledge both your privilege and your pain.
It’s okay to be shocked and not surprised at all.
It’s okay to just want the violence to stop, to end, to get better right now.
It’s okay to be with what you can hold in this, to set it down when you need it, and pick it back up when you’re ready.
And it’s okay to be human in this. You get to be human in this, and it makes sense that we as humans cannot adjust to this violence. Feeling ungrounded is not a personal failure: it is a sign you are awake, alive, aware, and paying attention.
Caring for yourself, deeply, amidst the grief, fear, and anger you might feel following these traumatic events is vital.
Acknowledge whatever you are feeling and make space to honor the emotions, listening for what they might be indicating we’re needing
Offer yourself fierce self-compassion
Move your body
Slow down to notice the present moment where you are safe
Give yourself permission to cry if tears are there
Be extra mindful of what news you consume
Distraction is a valid need
Connect with loved ones who can see, hear and feel you
Connect with nature
Tuning in, honoring our feelings, and caring for ourselves empowers us and informs us how we then want to mobilize to act and respond.
An EAP handout with more information about caring for ourselves and coping after a traumatic event is available here.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network's Coping after Mass Violence
For Our Children
Many parents are wondering how to talk to their kids about the gun violence, so we’ve compiled together the following resources to help support parents navigate these conversations.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a lot of resources in both English and Spanish. There are tip sheets about how to talk as a parent and an educator.
Drawing from the work of Dr. Han Ren, Dr Becky Kennedy, and Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart some ideas to think about conversations with your child include:
It’s okay for your children to see you cry or be angry. Honor your emotions as an adult to help you move through them, instead of judging or avoiding them. Create space for yourself to gather your thoughts (perhaps talk to other adults for support) before beginning the conversation with your children.
Set the environment based on what you know about your child. Would going for a walk together, having a snack or water, or having play dough or fidgets available feel supportive to them?
Don’t just “jump in.” Do Start Slow
Start with, “I want to talk about something serious, that we’ll all have big feelings about.”
Talk slowly, make eye contact; this maintains connection and helps child feel safer
Make space for them to ask questions, children often see things very differently than we imagine and may have very basic questions.
- Don’t be vague. Do use real words
It’s important to tell the truth. Using real words that are age-appropriate builds trust.
Two things are true: we don’t want to flood kids with fear and when kids ask questions, they are ready for truthful answers.
- Don’t just stick to the facts. Do check-in about feelings. Give them space and time to process
Pause at various points and ask, “What’s this like to talk about?” It’s okay if your child remains silent. You can share, “I know, it’s heavy stuff.”
If your child becomes upset, give permission for the feeling, and name your presence “It’s okay to feel sad about it. I’m right here with you.”
- Ask them what they know and what they have heard.
Ask them what questions that have.
Share information in response to what they ask.
Resist the urge to over-share.
Provide comfort and reassurance that they are safe right now
Point to the helpers and those adults who are working on the problem
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart, a San Antonio based psychologist, shares this sample script:
“Something terrible happened this week that was on the news. Have you heard? You might hear it at school, and I wanted to be sure you heard it from me first.
Something really bad happened at a school in Texas and people were hurt.
This is what I know… it is so sad.
What question do you have?
How do you feel about what I told you?”
Many parents are wondering what the appropriate age is to talk about the event and there is no “right” answer—you know your family best. If you think your kids may hear about this at school from peers, online, or from the news on TV – it would be supportive to bring it up ahead of time or be ready to have the conversation if they heard it elsewhere. Dr. Jazmine, a clinical psychologist, offers further recommendations in a Guide on Age-Appropriate Ways to Talk to Kids About Mass Shootings on her Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/themompsychologist/
Clear, direct, honest information shared while connected to a loving, trusted adult is what helps children feel safe and understood in the world around them.
Some further articles on extending care to our children following mass violence are:
PBS's guide to Helping Children with Tragic Events in the News
The American Psychological Association offers these relevant posts: APA resources for coping with mass shootings, understanding gun violence and Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting
This blog post is informed by the work of licensed mental health professionals Dr. Jazmine, Dr. Becky Kennedy, Ilyse Kennedy, LMFT, Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart, Lisa Olivera, LMFT, and Dr. Han Ren.
From the relational neurosciences, we know that connecting with others following traumatic events is one way to care for ourselves and help make sense of the tragedy. The Employee Assistance Program at UT Austin provides free and confidential short-term counseling. You can request an appointment by calling 512-471-3366 during business hours or emailing email@example.com
If you need urgent telephone counseling, UT offers a 24/7 Staff and Faculty Telephone Counseling Line at 512-471-3399.