March 31, 2023
“I feel scared.” “I feel hurt.” “I feel numb.” “Is this the new normal?”
Across the United States, children and teens are grappling with such feelings in the aftermath of yet another school shooting — this time in Nashville, Tennessee.
The best way adults can comfort the young people in their lives after such violence is to be there for them, said Patti van Eys, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and lifelong United Methodist.
“Our ability to be fully present with our children is the best tool in our toolbox,” she said. “They take their cues from us, and they will feel safe if they feel like we are safe.”
She was speaking to a group of parents and teachers during an online question-and-answer session hosted by Calvary United Methodist Church late March 30. The church stands down the street from Covenant School, the Christian elementary school where on March 27 a shooter killed three adults and three 9-year-olds before being taken down by police.
The attack was the 19th shooting so far this year at a U.S. school or university in which at least one person was wounded, according to CNN. It also was the deadliest school shooting since last year’s massacre in Uvalde, Texas.
Many of Calvary’s members have friends and family directly affected by the tragedy, and they are still in shock, said the Rev. Eric Mayle, the congregation’s minister of connection and engagement. The church also is home to Calvary Young Children’s School, a preschool where instructors moved quickly to bring the children indoors when they heard the sirens of the shooting’s first responders.
“We’re processing all of these emotions,” Mayle said. “And for those of us who are parents and teachers and grandparents, adding a layer to that is that we’re wanting to help our children to talk about and to process these events and their emotions about these events in healthy ways.”
With that in mind, he and van Eys quickly organized the session to provide people in the wider community with some guidance. With help from van Eys, the church also is now providing resources from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to help support children after the tragedy.
Van Eys, a member of Calvary and wife of its minister of congregational care, specializes in childhood trauma. She has spent much of her career helping children and adolescents heal.
Her advice includes:
She explained what she meant by being “fully present” with kids coping with tragedy. At the minimum, she said, it means that the adult is not distracted by the phone or using some other device with a screen.
“Think of yourself as a mirror,” she said. “And as your child — no matter what their age — comes to you, you can mirror what you are observing.”
She said adults should not force children to talk but they still have ways to check in with their kids.
For example, with a withdrawn child, she suggested a parent might say, “I notice you’re quiet today. Anything you want to talk about? I’ve been kind of feeling wonky today, too.”
She added that parents sharing a bit of their vulnerability with their child can help build trust.
Conversation with children also can give parents an opportunity to correct misinformation, she said.
But more important than words, she stressed, is the tone a parent uses. “If you’re talking to a friend on the phone, or you’re chatting in the other room, your children will be picking up your tone — even if they’re not picking up your words,” she said. “And if your tone is fearful, they’re going to pick that up.”
Help young people take control.
So much about a mass shooting is beyond a child and even a parent’s control. They don’t set gun policy or security measures. But, van Eys said, parents can help children take control of their emotions.
“Whatever the feeling is, name it to tame it. Lean in. Because if we resist it, it’s going to persist,” she said.
And if a child wants to shift that feeling, she said, that child has the ability to do so. One way, she suggested, is bilateral movement — exercise such as walking, dancing and swimming that involves both sides of the body. That action, combined with listening to a favorite song, has the power to change the brain.
“If we feel like we have some control,” she said, “some of this sense of helplessness and confusion will go away.”
Feel free to say “I don’t know.”
One question both parents and pastors face is: “Why did God let this happen?”
Van Eys said that how parents answer will depend largely on their values. The way she addresses the question is to note that God gave humanity free will.
“We are made in God’s image, and we have the ability to be creators and co-creators with God,” she said.
It also means humans can do wrong. “I always tell kids that God cries when these things happen,” she said.
Mayle, the pastor, added that parents should not be afraid to acknowledge they don’t know why this happened.
“I do know that God is good and God is love,” Mayle said. “And God did not allow this to happen. But beyond that, I don’t know. We join our voices to a long tradition of our faith that has said either ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘Here’s all these possible answers, and they all come up short.’”
When struggling with the existence of evil, van Eys said, it’s good to tell children that it’s a really good question and ask their thoughts.
“Some of the thoughts may be way off the wall,” she said, “and that may be exactly where we need to be going.”
Reach out to teachers.
Young people are not the only ones struggling with the evil of school shootings, so are their teachers.
Van Eys suggested parents reach out to teachers to see what stress relief they need. Some schools have opportunities for parents to volunteer; others do not. But even in those cases, where parents can’t help in the classroom, they can help by sending a letter of support or any unexpected kindness.
Just a cup of coffee or a card can go a long way, she said.
“There is something really important about just even the little gestures of appreciation,” she said. “Humans were created for connection, and so when we connect to each other in kindness, it changes the brain chemicals in our brain in that very moment.”