Traumatic events like a school shooting leave parents feeling fear, anger, and anxiety. Processing these emotions while continuing to care for your child is not easy. We reached out to Dr. Alicia Lieberman, Director of the Child Trauma Research Program at the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and a member of the CCY Expert Panel, to get her guidance.
Center for Children and Youth: Tragedies like school shootings can bring up a lot of different emotions. What would you say to parents who are feeling fear or anxiety about the safety of their children?
Dr. Alicia Lieberman: Parents are realistic to feel fear about the safety of their children. Parents’ fear and anxiety stem from their sense of helplessness about the conditions that endanger their children. At the same time, it is important to remember that the statistical probability that their children will get hurt is low. Devastating events can make us feel that danger is everywhere and can paralyze us with fear even if they are relatively rare.
Some anxiety is appropriate and healthy because it spurs us to protective action, but intense anxiety that interferes with daily activities needs attention and care to make it manageable.
CCY: What are some ways parents can process those emotions?
AL: Parents need to give themselves permission for self-care by taking time for their social life, rest, and doing things they enjoy. It’s very helpful to also pay attention to our emotions, focusing on what we are feeling in our body at a specific moment and giving that feeling a specific name (for example, “anger”, “confusion”, “fear”).
There are wonderful breathing and mindfulness exercises that are very effective in managing anxiety; there is evidence that taking just 60-90 seconds several times a day for self-care can increase wellbeing. It can be as simple as looking through the window, humming a favorite song, looking at the photo of a loved one, breathing mindfully, stretching, saying a prayer. These activities can re-set our internal state, and their positive effects accumulate when done regularly.
CCY: How can parents provide comfort and reassurance to their children, even as they themselves are still experiencing fear? How honest should parents be with their children about the way they are feeling?
AL: Truth is essential because children are very accurate observers of our emotions. At the same time, the truth needs be tailored to the child’s developmental stage. We can tell them that we are sad and mad because these are legitimate feelings that they are also entitled to have, but it’s important to show them by our example and our support that these feelings are manageable.
Always emphasize what we and other adults are doing to keep the child safe. It’s also important to maintain regular, predictable, comforting daily routines: meals together, time together, bedtime routines, opportunities to play. Continue to uphold expectations about the child’s behavior but be flexible when the child’s anxiety calls for extra cuddles, more comfort, and more reassurance. Take firm and immediate action to curtail self-endangering behavior and limit access to media and social media.
Finally, social action is a wonderful way of modeling protection: for example, telling the child how we are participating in the effort to change conditions so that children and families are safe.
CCY: As we head into summer, parents may be dropping kids off for camps or activities, families may be traveling through busy spaces or attending crowded events. How can parents deal with anxieties that may be triggered in those moments?
AL: It is helpful to anticipate. Before embarking on an activity, take some time to think ahead about how it will feel. Monitor the feelings in your body and give them a name. Trauma triggers are unsettling because they take us by surprise. We can increase our control over them by identifying them in advance, giving them a name, and finding a practice that helps us regulate the response. The more we practice, the better we become at helping ourselves and our children.
CCY: What would you say to parents who are struggling to process their emotions or who may be worrying about how their reaction is impacting their child?
Parents need permission to be gentle with themselves. Someone once told me, “Compassion that does not include us is not complete”. We will unfailingly fail to live up to our own expectations and lose control of our emotions and behavior.
The concept of “repair” has emerged again and again in studies showing that children do best when their parents are able to recover from dysregulated emotions, explain what happened, ask how the child is feeling, and find ways to return to a place of understanding and safety. We call it “speaking the unspeakable”. Children really crave authenticity. Being real with children, acknowledging that things are hard sometimes and that we make mistakes is very reassuring to them because it enables them to accept themselves as well.
Remember, emotions are contagious. Children learn more from watching what we do than from what we tell them. They are keen observers of the people they love and they learn a lot by osmosis. They are like little sponges that absorb the emotional climate that we create.
In taking care of our emotions, we take care of them because they grow as we grow.
Dr. Alicia Lieberman is Director of the Child Trauma Research Program at the UCSF Department of Psychiatry; the developer of Child-Parent Psychotherapy, an evidence-based trauma-informed treatment for young children and their caregivers; and a member of the CCY Expert Panel.