How Parents Can Cope With Anxiety After the Latest School Shooting

After the latest school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, it's natural to feel anxious about your child's safety. Experts share ways to manage your feelings.

A mother holds her sky little boy close to her chest, and he tenderly rests his head on her
Photo: Getty

Reena B. Patel is a psychologist. She helps people overcome anxiety for a living.

Yet, she can't help but feel anxious when she drops her child off at school these days. Patel isn't alone, and she wants others to know they aren't either in the wake of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which killed 19 children and two teachers.

"It's important for anyone to realize what anxiety is, and that is the fear of the unknown," says Patel, a parenting expert, positive psychologist, and licensed educational board-certified behavior analyst. "We do better with predictability. We want to control our environment."

School is typically one of those controlled environments. Though parents don't attend school with their children, they generally know their schedules, their teachers, and when they will be home.

But that trust has been shaken because of school shootings—and the tragedy in Uvalde is only the most recent one. Since Columbine in 1999, there have been 14 mass school shootings, defined as a shooting that results in the deaths of at least four people. The constant news has left parents anxious about sending their children to school.

"As parents, we want to naturally be able to be the ones who take care of our kids and are in control and make them feel safe and find solutions," says Patel. But some parents feel helpless and paralyzed by anxiety right now.

"You have to accept the fact that it is OK to feel," says Patel. "It's OK to be stressed. It isn't silly. It's very appropriate." However, Patel and other experts say managing these emotions is essential.

"What we resist persists," says Karolina Pekala, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. And experts say those persistent feelings of anxiety about school safety can affect children. They share tips for parents struggling with sending their children to school after a school shooting.

Feel Your Feelings

Patel knows it's tempting to acknowledge your feelings and try to move on, change the channel, or turn the page to the next big news story. But she cautions against that, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

"Sit with that uneasiness and let your body and mind feel it because what you need to tell yourself is that it is just a feeling, and it's a natural feeling based on a traumatic response," says Patel. Patel adds that not taking the time to feel your grief and fear can make it more difficult to cope, sleep, and eat.

Do What Makes You Comfortable

In the weeks after a mass shooting, heading out to happy hour with your colleagues may not feel right. That's OK, says Patel. "Take that moment. If you need to take a longer break from work, sleep a little it," she says. Though she doesn't recommend completely isolating yourself, paring down your schedule can help you process your grief.

"You just want that sense of security and control, and that's OK too in these coming weeks," says Patel. "We have to realize that all of us are grieving. Even though we may not know someone who has lost their life, we can put ourselves in [the victims' parents'] shoes."

Educate Yourself on Your Child's School Safety Policy

You can't control what happens when you drop your child off at school. But understanding how a school will handle threats of violence and active shooters can help you feel more secure.

JaQuinda Jackson, Ed.D., NCC, LPC, a licensed trauma therapist, recommends finding out:

  • The procedures and safety plan for threats, such as calls to the police and communication with parents
  • Education for teachers and school staff on red flags to look out for in students who may be struggling mentally
  • The plan in the event of an active shooter
  • Who devised the plans for threats and active shooters
  • The number of resource officers on campus
  • The number of mental health practitioners on campus and how students can access them

Dr. Jackson says parents can find this out by speaking with the principal, guidance counselor, or attending a school board meeting. Parents who are concerned about the school's protocols can speak up at PTA and school board meetings, which can give them a sense of control.

Limit Media Consumption—But Don't Completely Tune Out

Dr. Pekala suggests scaling back on social media use and news consumption and removing alerts from your phone, especially for news sites. "Every time you get an alert, no matter what it is, you will assume the worst…you don't need that 24/7," she says.

That said, turning off the TV and notifications doesn't mean tuning out. Dr. Pekala acknowledges that the news can help people become more informed on gun laws and ways to get involved. Before consuming something, she suggests asking yourself: "What are we going to learn? Is it going to be helpful or hurtful? Is this going to help me process my feeling or add to my despair and grief?"

If it's not going to help you, turn away—doom scrolling isn't going to drive change.

It's OK to Express Emotions With Children

Your child may be struggling with anxiety, and you may feel expressing your fears will make it worse. Alternatively, children, particularly younger ones, may seem unaffected by the tragedy, and you don't want to upset them.

But experts share it's OK to let your children know how you are feeling. "It's OK to share and label because something sad did happen," says Dr. Jackson. But be mindful of how much you share, and pair your fears with an action item. "Kids don't need to know the nitty-gritty of our fears," says Dr. Jackson.

She suggests saying, "I am scared sometimes to drop you off at school, but I know this is your plan at school." Dr. Jackson says these conversations can empower children to express their emotions, too, while ultimately feeling safer at school.

Make a Family Safety Plan

The school may have a plan for active shooters, but does your family? How will you communicate with one another? Though it's unfortunate families have to have these conversations, consider it like a family fire escape strategy—something you hope you never have to use but feel comfort in having.

"It will help you cope," says Patel. "What are measures we can put in place to make sure we know where we all are?"

Patel advises parents to ensure these measures are two-way. Just like you want to know where your children are at all times, make sure they know where they can find and reach you.

Take Action Against Gun Violence

Patel says she's noticing parents aren't just anxious—they are angry that we're grieving another school shooting.

"Let's take those emotions and do something…in a positive way," says Patel.

Dr. Pekala agrees. Guns can be a hot-button topic, and she understands parents may not want to get political, but she points out that the majority of Americans agree on certain issues. For example, a 2021 Pew Research poll showed that 81 percent of Americans supported universal background checks for private gun sales. She says that advocating for popular and common sense matters isn't as controversial as it may seem, and it can help parents cope.

"Parents can feel a sense of relief and meaning by helping make school and America [safer] on a larger scale," says Dr. Pekala. "We want our kids to be safe, learn, and grow. This step helps directly take action against school shootings and feel relief as we drop our children off at school each morning."

She shares that Moms on Demand and Everytown have resources for ways to get involved and become an advocate.

Should You Homeschool? Proceed With Caution (and Grace)

Dr. Pekala adds that the temptation to homeschool children for their safety is strong right now. But she recommends waiting to make a decision.

"Homeschooling can be seen as avoidance," says Dr. Pekala. "You're saying, 'I'm scared of what might happen to my kid at school, so I am going to keep them home.' Wait to process the pros and cons."

Patel says if you are considering homeschooling as a response, ask yourself:

  • Will I have the same feelings a year from now?
  • Will my child have access to socialization?
  • How will my child learn?
  • Can I manage the rigors of homeschooling? Can I afford a teacher?

"Don't make it an impulsive decision," says Patel. "You can take time. Remember, there is flexibility. Maybe it's creating and communicating with schools and finding out what they have in place [like mental health support]. Those are benefits versus isolating a child."

Find Resources To Cope With Anxiety

Dr. Jackson, Patel, and Dr. Pekala suggest speaking with other parents in the community about your fears. Your area may have a local parent support group, where you'll find other people who likely share the same anxiety about sending their children to school. "It helps to form connections and counteracts feelings of isolation," says Dr. Pekala.

Though it's understandable to feel anxious right now, Patel recommends finding a therapist if it persists over the next couple of months or affects your day-to-day life. She says your primary care physician can give you a recommendation.

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