Parents and other caregivers who are processing the aftermath of a shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis should know that its important to acknowledge our own feelings before helping our children, said several mental health experts.
“While we need to be there for our children, we can’t help them with their emotions if we aren’t clear about what we are feeling,” said Dr. Ken Haller, a pediatrician at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
With an easy availability of media, it’s unlikely that many children have not heard about the Oct. 24 school shooting, in which three people died, including the alleged shooter and several others were treated for injuries. Parents also shouldn’t assume what their children are feeling and what they need, Haller said.
“For some kids, especially those who are younger, it may barely register; but for others it can be a major source of anxiety and depression,” he said. “It’s important to ask them, ‘What do you need from me?’ and for them to know that whatever they feel is OK. If you don’t feel OK, that’s OK.” It’s also fine for adults to express to children, in age-appropriate ways, our own fears and sadness about what happened.
What makes a school shooting so scary is that it threatens a basic human need, which is safety, said Dixie Meyer, a licensed professional counselor and professor of family and community medicine at Saint Louis University. Home and school are two primary places where children spend a lot of their time, and they need to know that this is a place where they will feel safe.
To help children feel safe, schools might take the opportunity to review procedures to guard against intruders, Meyer said. Parents also are advised to take measures to ensure their children know they are safe at home.
Sitting together to do an activity or watch a TV show, spending time together in prayer or giving children extra hugs are ways that parents can create a loving environment that fosters that sense of safety.
Prayer is especially important as a means to help calm our brains after processing a traumatic event, Meyer said. “People who go to church can find it a calming and soothing experience, because it’s a place were you can sit and be still,” she said. Talking to God in prayer, reading Scripture, and disconnecting from technology, exercising and getting a good sleep can aid in the grief and healing process.
Another constructive way of creating safety is to proactively do something for those directly impacted by what happened, Haller said. Young children can make cards or draw pictures for students and staff at CVPA. Teens might volunteer in their community and families can make a plan to contact elected officials and public policymakers to find systemic ways to prevent gun violence.
Mental health professionals said parents should keep an eye out for signs of ongoing anxiety or depression, such as isolation, changes in sleep or eating habits, or in older children, spending too much time on social media.
“If you see major changes, the first thing is to talk to the child and said, ‘I notice something’s going on. What are you feeling right now?’” Haller said. “They might need to talk a little bit more about it and to hear reassurance their parents are looking out for them. But if it seems like they’re having problems beyond that — nothing matters, they don’t want to go to school, they’re having depressed thoughts or fatalistic reactions — that is when it’s time to see professional help.”
Saint Louis Counseling is coordinating efforts this week to provide counseling services to students and staff at St. Louis Public Schools, said executive director Tom Duff. Saint Louis Counseling, a federated agency of Catholic Charities of St. Louis, works with about 130 parochial, private and public schools through its School Partnership Program.
Duff said that it’s important to remember that there’s a ripple effect when something traumatic happens in a community. Even those who weren’t directly connected to the school can still be impacted by what happened.
“Our counselors are dealing with secondary stressors in schools around the region,” he said. “We’ve seen a spike in fear and anxiety, kids and teachers and staff who are worried about what might happen — are other people going to try to get into their schools?”
While school shootings have happened across the country, there is a greater impact when it hits home. Keeping , he said.
“The awareness of a tragic event needs to raise our own flags to engage with one another and to be proactive in taking care of ourselves,” Duff said.
Saint Louis Counseling: saintlouiscounseling.org or call (314) 544-3800
Behavioral Health Response’s Crisis Line and Youth Connection Helpline, which is available 24/7/365. Call 988, (314) 469-6644 or (314) 819-8802 (youth). An online chat for youth is available at www.bhrstl.com or by texting BHEARD to 31658.