Back to School in the Era of Mass Shootings

How parents can cope with the anxiety.

Posted Sep 04, 2019

Shutterstock / Evgeny Atamaneko
Source: Shutterstock / Evgeny Atamaneko

by Caroline Bjorkman, D.O. and Timothy Rice, MD

Back-to-school time can bring mixed feelings for both children and parents. Following the recent news of school violence and mass shootings, many parents are facing anxiety about sending their children to school, worrying if they will be safe outside the home.

Understanding the Facts

While school shootings are quite rare, feelings of anxiety are legitimate. In 2019, there have been 22 school shootings in which someone was hurt or killed.

Since gun violence is a crucial and often divisive topic in the United States, these shootings are widely publicized and their horrifying details are difficult to avoid. As the country finds a way to heal with the tragic loss, shootings are discussed on 24-hour news stations, in newspapers and on social media and online websites, often with around-the-clock coverage lasting days.

It can be overwhelming for parents to have one’s mind and newsfeed flooded with such thoughts and images. Constantly seeing these stories and ensuing discussions in the news and social media can trick your brain into thinking that there is a higher probability of this happening at your child’s school.

Therefore, when feeling anxious, it is important to put the situation into perspective and to reinforce to yourself that though the risk is always present, the odds of this happening at your community’s school remain extremely low. But how to do this? Easier said than done.

Controlling your Anxiety and Limiting Exposure

As a parent, the emotions you exhibit can influence your child’s feelings. If you express anxiety about your child going to school, either intentionally or unconsciously, you can potentially pass that anxiety on to your child. This may leave your child feeling unsafe. It is preferable to take note of how you are feeling and find ways to cope with anxiety on your own.

Now that your child is back in school, making time for yourself with activities you enjoy can help clear your mind and help you think straight. Though it is important to remain informed about these events, it may be helpful to refrain from reading about them. Scanning headlines but not getting into all the horrific details can help alleviate unnecessary distress and reduce anxiety.  

As some news platforms provide a personalized stream based on your past internet searches, your own anxiety can precipitate a constant, self-reinforced stream of violent news stories. Your strong, anxious feelings could be better used in political or community engagements rather than passing them on in an unmetabolized and overwhelming fashion to your child.

Continue Open Dialogue

It is important to continue having open dialogue with your child, even about topics that feel uncomfortable or generate anxiety. This connection with your child may help to incorporate a belief of safety and power when discussing these unbearable topics.

Children often have a greater understanding of the situation than parents may think, given their exposure to social media, television, and peers. It helps when children know their parents are also aware of what is happening and are available to help process the painful feelings these events create.

Many schools are practicing safety drills and active shooter drills to help children, parents and staff feel safer and better prepared for these tragic but rare events. Take some time before school starts to talk to your child about how you can both feel safe while they are attending school while remembering to listen to their concerns and uncertainty as well.

Ways to Control Your Anxiety

  • Take a Time Out. When people are getting anxious, they often think about either past or future events. Letting your mind wander in either direction will only worsen your anxiety. Bring your thoughts back to the present and try to focus on how you are feeling in that moment.
  • Try Deep Breathing. Deep breathing can help focus your mind back to the present. Start by taking in a deep breath and fully exhaling. Focus your thoughts onto your breath. Feel your chest expand with each inhale and feel it lower with each exhale.
  • Challenge Your Thoughts. In some cases, anxiety is caused by real events. However, in many cases, these thoughts and feelings are irrational and cause you unnecessary distress. Take a second to think about what is upsetting you. Is this something likely to happen or unlikely? If unlikely, try to change the thought and focus on the most reasonable outcome. Sometimes, writing down your thoughts can make it easier to visualize and think them through.
  • Practice Coping Skills. Everyone has different ways to deal with anxiety. For some, it can be working out, yoga, listening to music, painting or writing. Find something you enjoy and when you notice you are feeling more anxious, go to this activity to help focus your mind on another task.
  • Take Care of Yourself. As a parent, you often put your own needs behind the rest of your family. Remembering to take care of yourself by trying to get enough sleep, eating healthy, limiting caffeine, and making time for exercise can help keep your stress under control. As they say on the plane, put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others with theirs.

If you feel unable to cope with intense thoughts and emotions on your own or notice changes in your behavior such as sleep, overwhelming worry, or changes in your daily routine it may be helpful to see a mental health professional who can help you understand these feelings and handle them in a healthy way.

Caroline Bjokrman, D.O., is Resident Physician in the Psychiatric Residency at Mount Sinai St. Luke's and Mount Sinai West of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She is a graduate of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York, NY. Timothy Rice, M.D., is an associate professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. He is Director for Medical Student Education in Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai St. Luke's/West Site, and Chief of the Child and Adolescent Inpatient Psychiatry Units for the Mount Sinai Health System.

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