I’ve lived in Jersey City for 6 years. At that same time, in my professional life, I’ve been developed a resource list of helping children cope with trauma, whether that be from violence or natural disasters. It breaks my heart that, today, these resources are what we need in the place I call home. Sharing this as a public post on Facebook in case you know a family who can benefit and sharing here as well.
(Let me note – I am a public policy researcher, focused primarily on children up to age 8. I am not a mental health clinician myself, and my child is not quite 3, so I can’t claim to have “tested” many of these strategies. By job is to read the research and understand what resources are out there – I hope this is helpful as many of us as parents today feel we are out here without a net. Also, our whole city was victimized yesterday with this mass violence – but let us particularly remember that residents of Greenville are often overlooked, talked-over, and written off as a “problem” neighbor. A mass shooting, deservedly, jars us and horrifies us. But there are families in Jersey City facing wanton violence every day. I’d like to get into this further in another post but for, it is essential to recognize that wherever you live, it is okay to struggle today – but that others closer to the scene has a different experience).
First, recognize that you are processing the trauma of yesterday’s violence as a person and as a parent. You are scared, angry, and hurt. You are responding both to the violence of yesterday and the stress of media response and to whatever your feelings are on our local and national politics. Then you realize you have this PERSON you have to care for, whether they are old enough to realize what is going on and are scared, or whether they thought yesterday’s lockdown at school was just a new “quiet game” (and let’s talk another time about the AMAZING educator and care professionals yesterday who protected our kids at an unimaginable time). JCPS is working to provide mental health resources in the schools – no details yet – but kids need support at home too.
Kids pick up on our stress and emotions, even if they aren’t sure what’s going on – but that also doesn’t mean we should try to hide it all away either. We can admit our own fear and anger while reassuring them about the people who are here to keep them safe. Here are some major takeaways from the research – links at the bottom that you might also find helpful.
And, as always, let’s take some good advice from Mr. Rogers. I’ll share any opportunities for community engagement as we hear more.
How do you handle yesterday, today?
- Let your kid take the lead. So, your kid is old enough to know something is up. Most children will not benefit from the whole story (and we don’t know it all yet!). You know your kid best so gauge what they can handle – but when it comes to uncomfortable parenting conversations, from shootings to sex, some of the best advice is ASK YOUR KID WHAT THEY ALREADY KNOW. This gives you a chance to stall for time, gauge their baseline knowledge and – essentially – correct for any misconceptions. If kids were getting their news via rumors yesterday on lockdown, there might be some things that need to be corrected. Have this conversation today, tomorrow, and all week – because your child might not have heard anything from YOU, but they will hear snippets of conversation on the trip to school, from their peers, and in the grocery store with you. Kids hear pieces of information and squirrel them away, trying to make sense of them – make it clear YOU are there to help them do so.
- Be careful about media consumption. From wanting to check our phones constantly for updates to the fact that this is now national news, there’s a lot of media coverage. But PBS Kids reminds us that keeping constantly engaged in this can make us feel more hopeless, so try to set up some rules for yourself on when you can and can’t check, and stick to them (it’s hard! I know!).
Avoid watching TV coverage of the story with the kids in the room. From PBS: “The same video segment may be shown over and over again through the day, as if each showing was a different event….Children often become very anxious since they don’t understand much about videotape replays, closeups, and camera angles….
The younger the children are, the more likely they are to be interested in scenes of close-up faces, particularly if the people are expressing some strong feelings. When there’s tragic news, the images on TV are most often much too graphic and disturbing for young children.”
In general, any TV coverage of a disaster can make it feel “too close to home” for kids because it’s in their living room, and they can’t gauge how far away. Today, this is LITERALLY too close to home. Be sure that as kids know this happened in Jersey City, they understand danger is not lurking around every cover. You don’t want to “other” the neighborhood where it happened (“Don’t worry, sweetie, that’s all the way across town”) because we are still all in this together, but do reassure that the terrible danger has ended and we feel safe in our community. (If you DON’T feel safe and that’s showing – think of some ways you can make it better. Is it location sharing from your phone with a friend or partner for a bit? Is it meeting up with another family for the walk to school?)
For older kids with their own access to media, this is HARD. Sit down and talk with your teen and tween – acknowledge that you understand why they want to keep up with this news story, and that you do too, but that early in an investigation, a lot of misinformation comes out. Treat them, as much as you can, like an adult – ask them what they are hearing, offer to look into any questions. If it feels right, set some limits – but be careful here. Students were on lockdown for several hours yesterday, a unique experience that we are their parents don’t have (and are horrified by). They may feel they truly need to connect with their peers right now. The goal isn’t to get them off Snapchat for fear of them seeing crazy rumors, but to make sure they are talking to you about what they are hearing and seeing.
- TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. The old “you can’t pour from an empty cup” metaphor applies here. Acknowledge to your child that you are sad and upset – and then reaffirm for them the people who are there to take care of them. For many of us who are caregivers, it is natural to think we have to swallow down the bad feelings and put on a brave face – but if you don’t take the time to process your emotions (with yourself, a partner, a friend, or a professional), you’re going to wear yourself out and be less able to provide as a caregiver.
This is a national news story. Consider whether asking your boss to leave early is an option if you will feel better by being there for school pickup. Acknowledge to your coworker’s that this happened and you are having a hard day. Tell someone you are NOT up for talking about it, if you’re not – people outside our community may be trying to express support for you by reflecting on what they have heard on the news but a simple “Thanks so much for your concern. This has been NONSTOP at home and I could really use a break from talking about it” is a valid response.
- Sesame Street has “toolkits” for a variety of situations. They don’t have one quite for this, but I recommend “Support After An Emergency,” which is more focused on natural disasters (https://www.sesamestreet.org/toolkits/emergencies) – the Family Toolkit is a great resource (https://www.sesamestreet.org/sites/default/files/media_folders/Images/SupportAfterEmergency_Printable_FamilyGuide.pdf). There is also Grief, which is more focused on the loss of a loved one specifically than on community violence (https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/grief/). If your child is having anxiety (What if this happens again? Am I safe at school? What about at home), consider some of the steps of the Emergency Preparedness guide – kids feel empowered when they can exercise some control. https://www.sesamestreet.org/toolkits/ready
- PBS Kids has guidance on talking with your children, including “helpful hints” which includes things like the importance of maintaining a routine – again, any control you can give your child right now will reduce some anxiety. https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/helping-children-with-tragic-events-in-the-news
- For older kids who have some knowledge of “why” lockdown happened yesterday, the National Association of School Psychologists has materials (meant for professionals, but you can use them to!) on talking about lockdown, reassurance students, and handling trauma and terrorisim. https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/mental-health-resources
- Kids often don’t tell us explicitly “I am scared and anxious.” Especially for young children, they don’t have that awareness. FEMA provides a guide on how to recognize age-specific symptoms of disaster related stress, from birth to age 18. https://www.fema.gov/coping-disaster#5