When the mass shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, parents were lost as what to do and where to begin in efforts to support their grieving children. In many families, the parents were just as traumatized as the students. Children can become silent suffers. When tragedy and loss strike our youth unexpectedly like this, they quickly must learn how to deal with a roller coaster of emotions. As a licensed clinical social worker and trauma professional, I have a few helpful solutions to make uncomfortable conversations easier.
Attempt to have an open discussion about the shootings with your child. Not talking about it can make the tragedy even more threatening in their mind. It is very likely that they’re having daily reminders of the tragedy from media, peers at school, and even being triggered by physically being at school. Initiating a conversation will allow the opportunity to voice their feelings and fears rather than hold them in. When communicating with them avoid clichés like, “I know how you feel” or, “Everything will be alright.” The goal is to ease the suffering by being compassionate and providing a sense of safety. Maintaining open communication is key. Persuade your children to ask questions and try to answer those questions directly. In hard times, share one piece of good news a day and encourage them to do the same.
Continue to remind your children that these are natural feelings, and they aren’t alone. Be a positive role model and consider sharing your feelings about the event, but at a level they can understand. Express sadness and empathy for the victims and their families. Suggest ways you and your children together can be helpful in the community by supporting local causes and advocating to make change. Role-model ways to be more in the moment. For example, advise that they put away their cell phone while having dinner together. Enjoy a television show or game night together as a family, or even a fun outing. This will help alleviate anxiety and tension triggered by the tragedy. It also provides a sense of relief and family unity. Social media, cellphones, and gaming are just distractions. It takes our children away from facing the reality of the world around them, which suppresses the grief. If they hold in and suppress these painful feelings, it can come out in negative ways. Our jobs as parents are to provide them with a platform to grieve in order to help them heal and develop their own coping skills.
Even as time goes on, it is essential that we reintroduce conversations. There is no right or wrong way or normal length of time for grieving. The family as a whole should understand that each person is going through their own personal journey. Remind them that their deep-rooted feelings are normal reactions to an abnormal event. Be patient with your child as they may experience moodiness, anger, sadness, guilt, and/or irritable behaviors. To support them in their sorrow and through the healing process, motivate them to attend local support groups and provide a positive incentive as well. This could help lessen the tension. Accommodate and encourage your child to attend memorials and vigils. These healing events offer the community a chance to come together and mourn as one and help them feel unified.
If you or someone in your family is struggling with a painful loss call, First Call for Help of Broward (954) 537-0211 for community resources or call Personal Therapy Services (954) 491-0330 for your personal therapy needs.
Stacey Steinbaum, Clinical Therapist, MSW, LCSW, CCTP