As a parent, how can I cope with my own feelings after a tragedy?
Last week’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas has left onlookers across the nation with a host of complex reactions — anger, grief, mourning, helplessness, disbelief. The aftermath of a school shooting can have a negative impact on the mental health of entire communities — even for people who were not directly impacted by the event. Constant media coverage can overwhelm us and lead to acute stress and fear for our safety — and for parents and caregivers, fear for our children’s safety.
These feelings can be incredibly tough to navigate, but as a parent, your first thoughts may be with your kids.
How can you explain such a terrible event when you yourself are feeling a loss for words? What can you say to calm your child’s concerns when you’re feeling your own uncertainty?
It’s natural to instinctively want to put your kids’ needs first, and it’s true that children can rely heavily on parental support in difficult times like the days and weeks following a tragedy or traumatic event. These are totally normal responses for parents, and it is our job to help our kids navigate these emotions and provide them with support. However, it’s equally as important to check in on your own mental health, too.
When you’re on an airplane, you’re instructed to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child. This happens because you have to make sure that you’re safe before you can step in and take care of others. The same is true when it comes to looking after our mental health.
So, here are a few ways that you can make sure your own mental wellbeing is getting the attention and care it needs during a difficult time.
Remember to check in with yourself.
If your child is afraid or anxious, your instinct might be to try and put your own emotions and reactions aside in the moment to help them cope, and it’s totally okay to respond to your child’s needs, first. The problem, then, is when we don’t revisit or pay any attention to our own reactions at all. When our own emotions are left unexamined, they still linger on the inside — and that can lead to a lot of buildup that might leave us exhausted by the end of the day with no idea why we’re feeling so drained.
When your own emotions start to surface, try to really pause and examine what’s going on. Notice what’s happening in your body — are you short of breath? Feeling shaky? Is your heart beating fast and hard?
Ask yourself: How am I feeling? And keep in mind that you don’t have to wax poetic when describing those emotions. You can use simple words, or even words you won’t exactly find in the dictionary, to describe your emotions — whatever comes to mind. I’m feeling yucky right now. You can use colors, onomatopoeia, sounds, images, or any helpful descriptors that make sense to you in the moment.
The goal here is to avoid stuffing everything down. It’s important to face the panic, the fear, and the tricky emotions, even though they may be uncomfortable or painful.
Sometimes, acknowledging those reactions can feel unsafe if you have a history of trauma. You might notice a sense of worry that spending time with those feelings could cause you to spiral, have a panic attack, or lose control.
When our reactions seem particularly strong, this is our body’s way of giving us extra information about what’s going on, and that information is really important and useful for us. These strong reactions might be clues that these exercises aren’t safe for us to do alone, and it’s okay to honor that. If that’s the case, it’s important to seek support from a mental health professional who can help you navigate these feelings at a safe pace.
If you are able to sit with that discomfort on your own, the simple act of checking in and acknowledging your feelings over time can help those feelings to run their course and avoid gripping even more. Give it enough time, and try to keep practicing often enough throughout the days and weeks to come, that you can gather enough of those clues from your body about how you’re responding to the situation at hand.
But remember, checking in with yourself should become a regular practice. Over time, it should help alleviate the irritation, exhaustion, and anxiety you may be feeling when bottling up these feelings, but in order for that to happen, these check-ins should happen on a regular basis.
Once you start to notice your feelings, acknowledge them without judgment.
It’s normal for these kinds of exercises to feel uncomfortable, and they don’t have to go perfectly every time. Unfortunately, there’s no magical tool that can offer us immediate and total relief from feelings of distress. So, it’s important to have patience and compassion towards your natural responses.
Sometimes, we can fall into a judgment spiral about how we “shouldn’t” be feeling — Why am I not feeling stronger right now? Why am I still feeling so much negativity? Why aren’t I coping any better yet? Our brains tend to want to jump in, figure out what’s going on, and problem-solve, but it’s important to simply pause and accept whatever feelings and reactions are coming up.
Your emotions are a part of you, but they’re not all of you. Try to acknowledge them from a compassionate perspective and simply look at them for what they are.
Look at what internal dialogue gets activated in these times of heightened emotions, and try to reframe your inner self-talk to be understanding instead of judgmental. If it helps, you can even practice saying these things out loud.
This part of me is having a hard time coping with the news today. Honestly, it makes perfect sense. It’s uncomfortable, but I understand that it’s natural, too.
Acknowledging these feelings with compassion, letting yourself feel without judgment, and allowing your emotions to just exist as they are can really help them to run their course and avoid building up and overwhelming us, later.
Take breaks when you need them.
If you start to notice that you’re having a difficult time emotionally (for example, you’ve had a shorter fuse lately, your anxiety is heightened, you’re feeling more overwhelmed than usual), it’s okay to do whatever you can to just step away — whether it’s calling a babysitter for the night, asking your partner to step in and help with more responsibilities, or sending your kids to your parent’s house for the afternoon. You shouldn’t feel guilty for doing what you have to do to make sure you’re keeping up with your mental health and in a place where you can continue to care for yourself and your family.
Whatever you know recharges you and whatever you have the resources to do is a viable option. A break could even be just taking a shower uninterrupted or going for a walk by yourself after dinner.
It’s okay to set boundaries with your family when you’re struggling, too. Try saying “I need some alone time right now.” or “I’m having a hard time, and I need to go to my room for fifteen minutes to take care of myself.”
It can feel tough to put your own needs first — especially if doing so means making your kids a bit unhappy in the moment — but by doing this, you’re actually modeling for your kids how they might cope when they’re having a hard time. You’re demonstrating that it’s okay for them to step away and pay attention to themselves, too.
You don’t have to make this an explicit teaching moment, either. Just showing your kids what it looks like to take care of themselves independently and a healthy way is enough to leave an impact.
Finally, remember: do what you have to do to take care of yourself during this time. Practice compassion towards yourself and feelings, and try to avoid self-judgment. Make sure that your own oxygen mask is on, and if not, don’t feel guilty for pausing to secure it on your own.
Our team put together an in-depth guide to help you navigate how to talk to kids & teens about a school shooting, and you can access that guide here.
In the maro parents app, you can find articles about how to prioritize your own mental health as a parent, coping skills you can use to stay calm when emotions are running high, and how to create a meaningful support network to combat parental burnout. All of these are available to read for free, and you can view them by downloading the maro parents app here.
Written by Brittney Reiser, LMFT and Olivette Petersen.
Photo by Külli Kittus on Unsplash