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How to keep moving forward when tragedy happens

This was not the planned post for June (so stay tuned for Screens in the Summer coming in July), but I’ve talked to many parents over the past week who are feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, anxious and heartbroken over the events in Uvalde, Texas (following so closely to the shooting in Buffalo), and it felt important to address a few points here.

First, your emotional response to such a tragic event are valid, normal, and need to be felt. It feels sad, scary and overwhelming, because it is all of those things. There’s no need to feel badly for not being able to shake those feelings or to feel like your thoughts have been preoccupied by the events.

In the face of tragedy, there are many different feelings that may arise, and sometimes they can feel in conflict with each other. In addition to feeling angry, sad and scared, it’s common and normal to experience gratitude and guilt. You’re grateful that your family is safe and yet feel guilty about that. You may still feel annoyed that you stepped on another lego piece and feel guilty because a parent who lost a child would do anything to step on a lego piece. Or, you want to have some fun with your family because you’re so thankful for them and feel guilty about that because it conflicts with the deep feelings you have about the recent shooting. It’s all okay. Those feelings and responses can exist together, at the very same time.

There is a line, however, where those feelings of anxiety, anger and sadness (among many others of course) can become too much to handle on your own. They can become debilitating and interfere with daily life. After the past few years with the many challenges families have faced, these lines have blurred for so many and so if that’s where you are, that’s okay. It’s okay for it to feel like too much, because it is, it’s okay to ask for help, because we all need support. Please take a moment to consider what you need here. Is it to take action in some way? Is it to reach out to your primary care physician for referrals for mental health services? Is it a break from the news?

My guess is you want to protect your children from it all, and yet, there is a very good chance they have already heard about it. If you missed it, I have a recent post about talking to kids about hard topics (focusing on the events in the Ukraine), which may be helpful to you because it spells out some specific tips.

The truth is that there is no specific age where it becomes appropriate to talk to your kids about something as serious as school shootings. As a guideline, if you think your child might have heard about what happened, or will hear about what happened, then I’d recommend that you talk to them about it. When children hears about a tragedy like this, and no one talks to them directly about it, they are left to create their own narrative and try to muddle through their own scary and confusing feelings. You don’t need to talk to them the moment you hear about what happened. Take some time to gather your thoughts and talk to them when you’re in a calm state. It’s of course okay if you end up crying or upset in front of them. You can explain your feelings, and talk with them about that too.

One final topic that feels important to touch on: there is a lot of discussion right now about the involvement of mental illness in these mass shootings and that seems like something to discuss here.

It’s common after a tragedy to look for a single answer as to why it happened, but arguments that mental illness causes gun violence are inaccurate and harmful. In the field of psychology the word “cause” is a big one. Here’s what we know: 1- mass shooting are complex and many factors contribute (e.g., access to weapons, history of violence, modeled violence, violent tendencies or homicidal ideation, severe mental illness and several others) 2- terms like “mental illness” or “mental health concerns” are huge categories including many different presenting problems, and 3- just because you have a mental health illness or concerns does not mean that you will engage in violence, and so it is doing a disservice to those trying to prevent these tragedies and those with mental health disorders to solely blame mental health. The truth is that there are many other factors that need to be addressed, besides mental health issues, especially because the vast majority of people with mental health concerns do not engage in violent acts and studies show that there are many other factors involved.

This feels heavy to write, and I had to remind myself that just because something is hard and uncomfortable to think about and feel does not meet we shouldn't, and I know it feels heavy to read and think about.

Go ahead and feel grateful for your family, take care of yourself, take action, hug your children and keep going.

Take care,

Dr. Kate

p.s., some of the recent posts may be of interest, as they relate to this topic:

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