ARLINGTON, Texas – In a state still reeling from the tragic Uvalde school shooting, the return to school may leave some children and parents understandably grappling with anxiety.
Renee´ Breazeale, M.S., LMFT, LCDC, administrator of Texas Health Recovery and Wellness Center and Christina Thomas, LPC-A, an inpatient adolescent therapist at Texas Health Springwood Behavioral Health Hurst-Euless-Bedford, offer tips for helping parents and children cope with such fear.
Realize fear is normal
Create a safe space to discuss fears about returning to school, safety and how to manage those fears.
“Vulnerability is strength, so it’s OK for parents to show their children that they are scared, too,” Thomas said.
Teach children the importance of “see something, say something” – telling a teacher, coach administrator or parent if they hear or see something that doesn’t feel safe. And because fear and anxiety may ebb and flow throughout the school year, check in regularly with your children about concerns and/or anxieties they may be experiencing.
“As a mom of a 12-year-old son, I like to take those opportunities when we are in the car together,” Breazeale said. “He is somewhat of a captive audience and when it is just the two of us, he is more likely to share on an emotional level.”
Don’t minimize the risk
Validate your child’s concerns, fears, and anxiety but remember their brain development is still very much in process and they are looking to you for reassurance and stability.
Help them develop a safety plan that feels accessible and age-appropriate for any number of situations.
“Educate your child like you would educate them for a natural disaster,” Thomas said. “We talk to our children about what to do if there is a fire or a tornado. The goal is not to instill fear; the goal is to instill awareness.”
Breazeale encourages parents to think realistically about what their child would feel comfortable doing to protect themselves, whether it’s facing a bully or during a crisis at school.
“Encourage them to respond within their personality,” she said. “A quieter child might simply want to hide whereas a more vocal child might want to plan to tell someone.”
And be cautious to not project expectations into their safety planning, she warns.
“Remember the goal is to help them think through what is reasonable for them to do and the best possible way to keep themselves safe,” Breazeale said.
Limit and monitor exposure to social media
The news isn’t the only place school shootings are widely discussed so be aware what younger children are listening to and watching on social media.
“While there is usually no way to prevent children from seeing and hearing about such events entirely, monitoring what content they are exposed can help,” Breazeale said.
Consider parental controls that can help limit what younger children are exposed to on social media or through other platforms.
“I turned off the Amber alerts on my son’s devices several years ago because he would get anxious and concerned about the missing children,” Breazeale said. “While we still discuss these traumatic events, we now do so in a context and at a time that is more appropriate for his age, which has helped reduce the anxiety that these alerts triggered.”
Encourage older children to share their feelings and discuss what they’ve seen or heard about violence and other issues in the schools. Suggest coping strategies such as exercise, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, reading, listening to music and gaming with friends.
Consider seeking professional help
If your child continues to show high levels of anxiety or begins to exhibit behavioral changes such as becoming isolated or changes in their sleep, appetite, mood and focus, consider seeking professional help.
“Don’t dismiss it as if everybody goes through this and ‘You’ll get over it,’” Thomas said.
Texas Health offers free behavioral health assessments. To schedule an assessment, visit the Texas Health website or call 682-626-8719.
About Texas Health Resources
Texas Health Resources is a faith-based, nonprofit health system that cares for more patients in North Texas than any other provider. With a service area that consists of 16 counties and more than 7 million people, the system is committed to providing quality, coordinated care through its Texas Health Physicians Group and 29 hospital locations under the banners of Texas Health Presbyterian, Texas Health Arlington Memorial, Texas Health Harris Methodist and Texas Health Huguley. Texas Health access points and services, ranging from acute-care hospitals and trauma centers to outpatient facilities and home health and preventive services, provide the full continuum of care for all stages of life. The system has more than 4,100 licensed hospital beds, 6,400 physicians with active staff privileges and more than 26,000 employees. For more information about Texas Health, call 1-877-THR-WELL, or visit www.TexasHealth.org.