[Note to the reader: this was written in the direct wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings. The invitations and affirmations that Bri offers remain pertinent days, months, and years after.]
It seems impossible to metabolize the horrific act that took place in Texas yesterday, 10 days after a horrific act took place in Buffalo, at the end of one of the most difficult school years of our careers. As an educator, this dull ache in the center of my chest never seems to subside as I lament the collective pain these events cause myself and my colleagues. I sit in the joyful memories of past students, in gratitude that this type of crisis has not happened in their journey, yet also sitting in the grief of other crises that have happened to them.
And above all, I wonder what is in the hearts and minds of my colleagues in Uvalde as they wake up (or, like me, remain awake throughout the night) holding such immense loss. This is massive heartbreak I cannot imagine, yet seem to ponder regularly as these events continue to happen.
In moments of crisis, we as adults struggle at times to discern how we feel, and even more challenging is how to communicate what we feel to our students and children. When violence occurs in everyday places like schools and supermarkets, young people’s sense of safety and normalcy is disrupted – and so is ours.
We know that trauma can be experienced directly or indirectly and for many of our young people the care and support from a loving adult relationship can be a key factor in helping them navigate big feelings, fear, and questions.
Here’s what I found myself needing for myself, and offer this to you:
Take a moment to unclench your jaw, breathe deeply, and allow yourself to just be for a moment. Right here, each breath, slowly and fully. Your big feelings, your numbness, your anger, sadness, grief, hope, and longing for peace all have a place here. They are part of what it means to be human, and our humanity is what we need to hold on to. Anchor yourself to something familiar and steady in the space you’re in.
Maybe that’s a photo of a loved one on the wall, a plant you nurtured over the last year, or the familiar pattern of the rug near where you’re sitting. Allow your focus to linger there a moment as you breathe. And just be, noticing the things that come, acknowledging they are part of your process toward responding, and come back to this article as you feel ready.
Here are a few supportive approaches for us adults who work with young people and their families:
Re-establish safety (the primary trauma informed principle). For elementary-aged kiddos, direct and literal correlations often happen in their minds related to a crisis. When something scary happens at a school, to them it seems just like “school,” and they may not immediately distinguish between “that” school and “my” school. Even as students get older, the sense of stability is altered in those environments, especially when adults around them will be on high alert.
When we consider safety, it is a multi-faceted experience affecting not just physical safety, but emotional and social safety as well. In supporting young people’s sense of safety, you may want to:
- Maintain predictability throughout the day (follow routines and normal rituals)*
- Reflect together on safety measures that are already in place at their school
- Make a plan for who to go to for help at school and when it might be a good idea to ask for help
- Reassure them you care about them and are there for them
- Check-in on their emotions regularly
*Note that this does not mean ignoring what is happening. Consider creating spaces for conversation, processing feelings, and time to connect at logical points in the existing routine. In fact, sometimes ignoring creates more unsafety.
Allow them to lead the conversation (this re-establishes the trauma informed principles voice, choice + collaboration and mutuality). If the young person brings this crisis event up to you, following their lead in the conversation can support their sense of agency and help them metabolize their knowledge and feelings. If they don’t bring up this crisis event, but you know they’re hearing the news, invite them into a conversation, honoring their response if they are not yet ready for a conversation, and consider asking them:
- What have you heard? What do you already know?
- What questions do you have?
- What do you need/want to do as you think about this?
- What feelings are coming up for you?
This sense of agency and gentle communication is empowering for young people and is a great way to support them. As you talk, remain factual and clear. For younger children, limiting information may be the most helpful. For older children, exploring straightforward news coverage and discussing it together can help provide information to answer their questions without inundating them with facts and commentary. There may also be an actionable intent that comes from the conversation, such as donating allowance money or writing a letter, that you can support them with. And, it is okay if you do not know the answer to their questions. Simply offering an “I wonder that too!” can be reassuring.
As you talk to them, be mindful of their body language and responses, and be prepared to pause the conversation if needed. Checking in about how they are feeling as the conversation occurs is helpful to keep them from feeling overwhelmed with information.
Create places for them to feel. While the first section appeals to the rational and logical centers, children and students will largely need emotional support and validation. As young people grapple with crisis events, many “survival brain” responses will kick in, which can sometimes lead to tears, hiding, outbursts, or neediness. Validate their emotions as they come up, holding them and then restating them back. Try statements like:
- I notice you said you are feeling __________. When events like this happen, it makes sense you feel that way.
- I hear you. I feel _________ too.
- Here’s what I’m hearing you say…
- I can see that you are very (upset, sad, frightened, scared).
- We are both feeling __________…we are in this together.
There is a complex balance to be had here between being a calming presence for a young person and modeling ways to cope with big feelings. If you are in a dysregulated place yourself, that can negatively impact the young person, and waiting until you have had more time to process is ideal. But, you do not need to be “over” or “move past” your feelings before having a conversation; in fact, being open about your feelings together can normalize and validate what the young person is feeling.
And finally, remember to hold space for yourself. Each of these steps also deserves to be applied to you – create space to talk through (and filter!) what you’re consuming, validate and hold space for your own emotions (with a friend or therapist), and consider your own personal safety needs.
Consider the exercise at the beginning of this piece: take a moment to just be before you begin to do. And as you begin to move throughout the day, notice what is happening in you and around you. Practice deep, quality breaths and treat yourself with gentleness. Savor each sip of coffee and each rush of wind today, know that both feelings and numbness are normal as we grapple with this crisis event. And knowing how beautiful the spirits of young people are, they may also bring you some comfort as you talk with them.
I’m with you. We’re with you.