Talking to Our Children About School Violence

Available for Interviews: Dr. Pete Loper

Dr. Pete Loper, MD, MSEd, FAAP, is a triple board-certified physician in pediatrics, psychiatry, and child psychiatry. He is also a professor and executive coach and is dedicated to mental health and wellness advocacy.

What Dr. Loper could say on
How to Best Support Our Children’s Mental Health
When Tragic Current Events Unfold
:

The horrific school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas has brought trauma and anxiety at once to a community that is now mourning the loss of 19 children and two teachers—and has brought collective trauma to our country as the conundrum concerning violence at our educational institutions rages on year after year.

Some ways that we can best support our children’s mental health and to help them process and cope with the often unpredictable and upsetting news events can fall into three categories:

1. Prevent

    • The most important key is to prevent persistent viewing of the news cycle. Persistent viewing and engagement in the news cycle may create Re-traumatization.
    • You need to limit your child’s exposure to the tragic news. Tell them the story, answer their questions, and then move on from there while being mindful of your children’s needs. It may be necessary to circle back around to it in the future. It certainly can be an iterative process, but you want to make sure that you create opportunities to readdress the topic as indicated per your child’s needs.
    • Collective trauma occurs when events happen outside our locus of control or elsewhere, but we really feel and experience those events as trauma. So when we conceptualize those events that are occurring in our own communities on top of what might happen on a national level, so again, the best way to address trauma is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Very often the most efficient way to do that is to limit our kid’s access to the news cycle. If you cannot limit exposure, then make sure your kids are not perpetually taking in the news and looking at unsettling images.
    • Social Media can create additional challenges. First, ask your children what they know, and then create a safe space for them to be able to ask meaningful questions to help support them and process the trauma.
    • Parents who also may be experiencing anxiety should also limit access to the upsetting news cycle as well. Anxiety is communicable. It is transmissible. It is contagious. If you’re feeling this anxiousness or uncertainty you will likely transfer that to your kids. Again, just take in the high points and learn what you need to know to keep your family safe, and really limit it at that.

2. Process

    • Support your child in processing the tragedy by creating a safe place to ask questions and “ meaning make.” For the younger ones play can be super helpful.
    • When you’re engaging with your children, anchoring that conversation in their developmental age and stage is very important. Keep in mind that children under 7 cannot really conceptualize and understand death—at least the permanent of death.
    • When children ask questions it is helpful in these situations to acknowledge the question, engage, and in answering that question, make sure to answer the question to the child’s satisfaction, but you don’t have to give the whole story—you need only give them the high points and not all of the specific details.

3. Empower

    • Help your children in identifying classmates who may feel anxious, sad, isolated, or alone, and empower them to engage in strategies to provide these classmates or friends with support.
    • Insecurity is a manifestation of the trauma and can create a sense of hypervigilance or anxiety. This is normal in the context of tragic events on the national and community levels. If our children express fear or anxiety about going to school, the best thing to do is be honest with them. The truth is, despite how awful that particular school shooting was in Texas, it is a very rare occurrence. Provide reassurance by letting them know that they will be safe and that as parents we and the school have taken extra precautions to ensure safety.
    • If you or your children are having trouble sleeping, keeping or establishing good sleep hygiene will help. Part of this routine could be doing things like deep breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness practices that can help remove you from that headspace and help support that parasympathetic system from being activated, help you calm down and deactivate that fight or flight response.
    • Also, having meaningful conversations that include eye contact can release a neurotransmitter called oxytocin can help reduce that fight or flight response and make us feel more calm, secure, and safe. Put the electronics away and turn the televisions off.

Although we cannot shield our children from knowing about tragic events in our communities, our country, and our world, building the necessary communication and parenting skills to talk with our children will at least help them to better process what is happening so that we can reduce the level of mental harm these events can often evoke.

 

Interview: Dr. Pete Loper

Dr. Pete Loper began his undergraduate studies in English at Kenyon College prior to completing his premedical coursework and Bachelor of Arts at the University of South Carolina (U of SC).  He earned his Doctor of Medicine from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, and his Master of Science in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.  Following medical school, Dr. Loper completed a residency in pediatrics. He then worked as a pediatrician in a private practice setting while completing a second residency in psychiatry and a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry.  He has also completed the American Psychoanalytic Association’s Psychoanalytic Fellowship Program and the Teleos Leadership Institute’s Coach Development Program.

Dr. Loper has been featured in numerous academic publications and media outlets and it is through these channels that he can dedicate his time to be an advocate for mental health and wellness.

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