The shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde which took the lives of 19 children and two adults underscore the fact that we are living in an uncertain and dangerous time. It is difficult enough for adults to process what happened and manage their emotional response in healthy ways, but children and teens don’t have the same set of tools. It’s hard to fathom how they are absorbing these harsh realities. We all have to face the fact that children and teens are at risk in a place where they spend the majority of their time – school. Over the years, I’ve heard time and again from teens who are afraid at school. Some fear being made fun of or being left out. Some fear facing the girl/boy who has taunted or bullied them for years. Some fear academic and social expectations. Almost all fear for their basic safety. What if their school is the next site of a mass shooting?
This fear is real and just as the events of last week have shown, there is no way to predict random acts of violence.
How do we answer our children and teens when they ask if they are safe at school?
How can we help them process tragic events and overwhelming emotions?
How can we manage our own worry, sadness, anger, and fear?
Now, more than ever we must tap into our emotional strength and resilience, and build those qualities in our children and teens. We need to practice and teach them how to soften their anxiety about the future so that they don’t linger in fear and pain.
One way to do this is by intentionally building emotions like presence, calm, and optimism. We need to create and nurture positive moments so they become the memories that anchor us. From this place, we can handle devastation and shock with perspective. We can cultivate energy to take action for change. We can effectively support our children, teens, and ourselves.
These are two simple, yet powerful practices that encourage favorable emotions and reduce tension. They are effective for adults, teens, and children.
1. When something good is happening, pause and acknowledge.
Take just a few seconds to be still in moments of goodness and notice what is going on around you. Do this with your child or teen too- When spontaneously joyful or celebrating a win, instead of rushing into the next thing, say, “Hold on, let’s just take a second to enjoy this moment. Wow! It’s incredible. Tell me about how you are feeling. I’m feeling so inspired, happy, amazed, etc.” Build a vocabulary of positive emotions for your child or teen Get into the habit of savoring heartening moments. This helps the positive emotion stick and serves as a helpful resource going forward.
2. Intentionally gladden the mind.
This is a common practice in Buddhist meditation, but it can be done anytime by anyone and it is a powerful way to counter the tendency to focus on negative thoughts. There are several ways to gladden the mind. When you notice your thoughts are tense or disempowering, ask yourself how you feel when you think that way and is there a different thought that would produce a more pleasing experience? When you notice your child or teen lamenting, say, “Wow, that sounds pretty bad. Is there another way to think about that that might make you feel better?” The basic premise is to bring awareness to how negative thoughts make you feel and then shift your focus to an uplifting, empowering thought.
Another way to gladden the mind is through gratitude. A simple expression of gratitude has the power to change your emotional state and over time, build an optimistic outlook. Start a gratitude practice with your teen through sharing a gratitude journal, creating a gratitude jar, where you can drop in notes of gratitude, or sending a text expressing what you are grateful for.
Other Coping Mechanisms
These practices are helpful for emotional well-being and serve as tools to take into an uncertain future. However, action and advocacy are also coping mechanisms. You may want to share opportunities with your teen (and if appropriate with your child) about ways he/she can get involved. This may be through volunteering, raising and donating money, letter-writing, or learning about an area of concern.
My mission has always been to help young people live their very best lives and the events of last week emphasized the importance of taking action to support the health, wellness, and future of our youth. With a healthy outlook, we can all find something to do, some way to contribute to promising change.