Yesterday, a Townville, South Carolina, elementary school playground was terrorized by a teenage gunman who wounded two students and a teacher. Just days before, a man carrying 2,600 rounds of ammunition injured nine people as they went about their morning commute in Houston, and last Friday night in Washington state, five lives were lost when another gunman opened fire in a shopping mall. Mass shootings are our new normal, and the harsh reality is that we must prepare our children for these situations.
Before I was a stay-at-home parent, I worked as a seventh-grade language arts and reading teacher. Columbine happened one year before I started teaching, and while it was a tiny thought in the back of my mind, I wasn’t too concerned. After all, it seemed to be a one-off tragedy. Statistically speaking, I knew I was safe.
My second year, 9/11 happened. Working in Arlington, Virginia, meant hearing the low-flying plane before it hit the Pentagon, and having several students not knowing if their parents were safe (thankfully, they were). It was traumatic, certainly, but we were all OK.
My third year brought the D.C. sniper crisis. I zig-zagged my way through the parking lot as they had shot a middle school not far from us as well as murdered a woman at the Home Depot on our street. Once again, my workplace was on lockdown, this time for much longer, and we held our collective breath until the shooters were captured.
After that, we conducted shelter-in-place drills where we practiced taping up windows and remaining silent. As the grown-ups, we worked hard to keep a sense of normalcy and calm, knowing how much our students needed us to do so.
When my first baby was born, I went on indefinite hiatus from my teaching job, and I haven’t gone back yet, but in the past decade of my staying at home to care for my babies, I’ve watched the news like the rest of the country as tragedy after tragedy unfolds. But these were mostly universities and other places that older children hung out: malls, movie theaters.
As my children grew older, I learned to plan my schedule around the “safest” times: going to see a movie long after it had arrived in theaters as opposed to the first weekend of its release, figuring less crowded meant less likely to be a target. Mall trips during off-peak, not on weekends, again, calculating the lowered risk of a Monday morning shopping trip.
But my babies were growing into school-aged children, and so it was time to talk to them about hiding in supply closets, barricading themselves behind desks, and even how to play dead. My sweet girl who had yet to master the tying of her sneakers would first need to focus on staying alive in the face of a school shooter.
I had been able to hold it together when it was my students, whom I loved, but now I was teaching my wide-eyed little ones who had grown under my very heart how to play dead — when I wasn’t even fully ready to explain death itself. Unsurprisingly, I did a terrible job. I ended up changing the subject and sinking myself further into denial about the whole mess, choosing instead to rely on their school to keep them safe and prepared. After all, I lived in a relatively quiet community and our school had taken appropriate measures to secure the building and students.
Then a man who lived in the apartment complex a stone’s throw from both my home and my children’s elementary school was arrested after it was discovered he was hatching a plot for a mass shooting. He had 25 legally purchased firearms and several thousand rounds of ammunition when the ATF broke down his door.
My denial came to a screeching halt. I had to do better. I had to face my fears and make sure my children were prepared. This was the way of the world now, and I needed to be the parent, even if that meant setting aside some very real emotions I was having and putting my children first. But I needed professional help to do so.
I reached out to a friend, who, as it happens, is a traumatic stress specialist. Her job is to help people work through this very type of issue, and I knew she would have the tools to help me as a parent. Elizabeth Vermilyea, Ph.D., offered these practical tips:
1. Answer your children’s questions, but don’t over-answer them.
Depending on the age of your child, their focus might be different than you think. Ask the child what their concern is and speak to that. For example, when they ask about why the doors are locked, they may think locked doors mean they cannot get out.
2. Ask the child what their specific concern is and speak to that.
Allow them to talk about their emotions, their fears, and their anxieties. Help them to identify their main concern and address it in concrete ways. Safety plans, escape routes, and check-in calls are important as well as comforting.
3. Be prepared for regression.
Clinginess is to be expected, so make a plan for handling your child’s intense feelings without shaming them. Terror brings about a need for attachment, so facilitate that.
4. Remember that talking about mass shootings is potentially scarier for adults than kids.
Because we can envision all of the horror, it can be bring on severe anxiety in us. Keep the focus on your children and their concerns so you don’t add to their burden.
5. Keep your own paranoia from transferring to kids.
Identify your own fears and feelings and make space to talk about them. Make your own safety plans in case of emergency. Get support from other adults. Become involved with school or community organizations that are creating safety plans.
Being a parent can be terrifying for any number of reasons. We naturally worry about our children’s safety and scramble for how to best protect them. We see ourselves in the mourning mothers and fathers on the evening news, and when we see the tiny caskets, we cannot help but think of our own children. But in order to protect them as much as we can in a world with such tragic possibilities, we must be able to have these conversations and set a good example.
Of course, after they have fallen asleep at night, it’s also OK to have a drink or a cry. After all, we are only human.