‘Changes your life forever’: How to cope with tragedy

Students and families across the nation may have overwhelming weight on their shoulders following the tragic mass shooting at a Texas elementary school.

On Tuesday, the deadliest school shooting in Texas history happened at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, about 85 miles west of San Antonio. At least 19 children and two adults were killed.

The massacre came a day before the two-year anniversary of George’s Floyd’s death, and just over a week after 10 Black people were killed in a mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.

As the country mourns with the victims’ families, Channel 9 is continuing to talk to local families and experts to ignite a conversation on mental health and how to move forward after a tragedy.


‘Changes your life forever’

The heartache of this tragedy reached little eyes and hearts across the country.

“They saw a little bit about it. We don’t want them to know too much about it,” said Arthur Mitchell, a Gastonia father whose young children saw enough to become worried.

A survivor of the 2018 school shooting at a south Florida high school knows firsthand what the students in Texas are going through. Cameron Kasky shared the impact it can have on a child’s life.

“This happens during the formative years of your life, so students are going back into school soon, and they are going to live lives and have childhoods and early adulthoods that are completely informed by this tragedy. What I’ve seen in Parkland and these other horrible shootings, it changes your life forever,” Kasky said.

How to respond when your child asks ‘Why?’

Mitchell said he is having challenging conversations with his children about the tragedy.

“‘Mommy and daddy, why? What made somebody go in there and shoot them kids like that?’” Mitchell said. “They want to know if they can go to school or come back home. They want to know if they can go see their friends and not have to worry about calling their mommy and daddy and say something happened, there was a shooting.”

Mitchell and his wife are continuing to remind their children that they are safe, which is exactly what counselors at the Lighthouse Children’s Advocacy Center said parents should be doing.

The organization help children overcome trauma. Channel 9′s Ken Lemon asked the program manager how to respond when a child asks, “Why?”

“Saying exactly what happened. Somebody made a very bad decision or a bad choice and this is what happened,” said Heather Kauffman.

She also recommends to not explain too much when talking with small children.

“Hearing about this in secondhand fashion really can kind of impact people in really different ways,” Kauffman said. “Trauma can manifest itself in lots of different ways, and may not really seem to creep up on us right now, but can creep up on kids sometime later.”

She said if it presents itself, children have to work on ways to cope.

“Really being able to bring educational activity and therapeutic technics to the child’s level,” Kauffman said.

She also said when it’s hard, they point children to bottles filled with sand and encouraging messages from other children who have worked to overcome trauma.

Talking to your child about a traumatic event

Children sense the anxiety and tension in adults around them. And, like adults, children experience the same feelings of helplessness and lack of control that tragedy-related stress can bring about. Unlike adults, however, children have little experience to help them place their current situation into perspective.

Each child responds differently to tragedy, depending on his or her understanding and maturity, but it’s easy to see how an event like this can create a great deal of anxiety in children of all ages because they will interpret the tragedy as a personal danger to themselves and those they care about. Whatever the child’s age or relationship to the damage caused by tragedy, it’s important to be open about the consequences for your family, and that you encourage them to talk about it.

Children need comforting and frequent reassurance that they’re safe. Be honest and open about the tragedy. and encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing. Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.

Here are also some tips from the American Psychological Association and other resources for dealing with children and trauma:

  • Think about what you want to say. Some advanced planing may make the discussion easier.
  • Find out what they know. For example, there was a shooting at a school or a bomb set off in another country. Ask them “What have you heard about this?” And then listen.
  • Tell the truth. Lay out the facts at a level they can understand. You do not need to give graphic details.
  • Sometimes the answer to the question is “I don’t know. “Why did the bad people do this?” “I don’t know.”
  • Tell them that their homes are safe. If you are close to the tragedy, explain what is being done in the home and community.
  • Reassure them that these tragedies are rare events.
  • When coverage dominates the news, encourage turning off the TV or computers to keep children from seeing or hearing too much about the event.
  • Above all, reassure. At the end of the conversation, reassure your children that you will work to keep them safe and to watch out for them. Be available to answer any questions or talk about this topic again in the future. Reassure them that they are loved.

Mental health resources

In the wake of a tragedy, the mental and emotional toll may have a large impact on people, from children, adults, parents and families.

Whether it was a child who witnessed a school shooting, a child who knows someone who has or parents of child, it might be time to address the issue and talk about the trauma.

Some children express their emotions when confronted with a stressful situation and others don’t. Parents should be prepared to talk and, most importantly, listen to their children. Parents also struggling with mental health should also know help is out there for them.

Channel 9 is breaking down some resources we hope will make finding help easier:

Mental Health America offers several tips for discussing tragedies like the Uvalde mass shooting with children. To read their full advice, click here.

The Disaster Distress Helpline is a national hotline dedicated to providing year-round disaster crisis counseling. This toll-free, multilingual, crisis support service is available 24/7 by phone at 1-800-985-5990, and SMS (text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746) to people who are emotionally distressed because of natural or human-caused disasters. Callers and texters are connected to trained and caring professionals from a network of crisis centers across the country. Helpline staff provide supportive counseling, including information on common stress reactions and healthy coping, as well as referrals to local disaster-related resources for follow-up care and support.

Advice from a mental health expert

Licensed clinical social worker Justin Perry is helping to start a conversation on mental health amid the Texas elementary school tragedy.

Students, parents and families are all mourning with the loved ones of the 21 victims who lost their lives Tuesday and with that comes heavy hearts and minds.

The youngest generation is now growing up to learn the ABC’s and learning active shooter drills at the same time. The anxiety around school safety has parents keeping their children home and police departments stepping up patrol at schools.

>> In the video below, Perry shares advice for parents and families on how to talk to children about a traumatic event and how to move forward.