Back-to-school season is a time when parents and kids are typically filled with excitement as they prepare for the return to early morning alarms and late nights of homework. But this year, parents may be facing an added stressor as they send children into classrooms in the aftermath of the shooting that occurred in Uvalde, Texas, last May. The unthinkable act, which left 19 students and 2 teachers dead, filled an entire nation with renewed fear and confusion over how to keep kids safe in schools.
Therapist Syd Miller says those feelings most likely did not disappear over summer vacation. "Parents are terrified by the thought that when they drop off their child at school or put them on the school bus, it might be the last time they ever see their child alive again," he tells Yahoo Life. Miller says these feelings are real, raw and extremely challenging to process.
So how can parents manage both their own anxieties — and those of their kids — as classrooms begin to reopen for a new school year?
Understand that separation anxiety is real
The devastation, and for some, trauma, of the Uvalde shooting can heighten the intensity of separation anxiety for parents. Tia Raimo, a mom from Simsbury, Conn., calls the tragedy in Uvalde "another harsh reminder that I can't always be there to protect my kids."
"That is a gut-wrenching reality," says Raimo. She works in a private school and says she and her three kids, who range in age from 8 to 14, will be heading off to three different schools this fall, which adds to her worry. Raimo is preparing for the back-to-school season as she does every year, but tells Yahoo Life this year feels a little different. "I don't want to send them off," she says. "Fear is creeping up and I don't feel the same sense of peace or safety I used to feel."
Miller suggests parents cope with separation anxiety and increased fear by bringing reason to their emotions. "According to the Washington Post, the risk of a child being involved in a school shooting is only 1 in 614 million," he says. "While any risk to a child is too much, this is an extremely low number."
Miller adds that because the thought of a school shooting is so horrific, it's only natural for fear to take over. If parents focus on the actual probability and reassure themselves their kids are safe, however, then they can "confidently reassure their kids that they are safe and that their school is safe."
The right kind of communication may be tricky
Parents may recognize the need to have open conversations about school safety, and the Uvalde events in particular, but should be cautiously aware of not instilling increased fear into their kids as they send them off to school, says Miller.
But that can be a hard line to draw. Kristjana Hillberg, a mom of three in Rapid City, S.D., says it's hard to know what to say, so she keeps the focus on courage. "I want to teach my kids that you can be brave and terrified at the same time and that you can talk about and do hard things, even though it's scary," she says.
Raimo offers her kids an outlet through prayer. "My goal is to gather every morning and pray together before we leave for school," she says. "I hope this will give all of us comfort and strength to get through our days."
"The main message has to be that though some bad things have happened that they have heard about, they are safe, their siblings and parents are safe and everything will be fine," adds Miller.
Still, parents may worry this message isn't entirely true. Recent history shows the threat of school shootings is indeed real. So, what's a parent to do? How can they relay a message of safety to kids without feeling like they're lying?
"There is an element of risk in anything we do, even simply crossing the street," says Miller. "We do not want to unnecessarily frighten our children and make them anxious or develop anxiety-related problems, so we tell our kids to look both ways when they cross the street. But we don't want to make them afraid of crossing the street. It is the same here."
"Our children are aware of the shootings and schools do have drills for such things like they have drills in the event of a fire. But we don't want them to be frightened of going to school," Miller adds, emphasizing the importance of having age-appropriate conversations. "As they grow older, we can begin to discuss such things in greater depth — the nuances of it all — but the basic message remains the same: You can comfortably and honestly tell them that though the thought of it is horrific, the risk is extremely minimal."
Helping kids take action
In the months following the shooting in Uvalde, parents like Raimo have become increasingly frustrated. "Why aren't we securing our schools better?" she asks. "Why can we come up with money for so many other things, but the safety of our children doesn't seem to be a top priority?"
At home, Raimo has taken extra steps to teach her kids about A.L.I.C.E. training, an acronym for "alert, lock down, inform, counter and evacuate" that equips students with proactive option-based strategies for an active shooter situation. "I show my kids how to open windows to escape any emergency," she says, "and I tell them where to run and who to trust."
Miller says it's important to focus on the exciting parts of returning to the classroom. "It's so important to engage in all the other traditional back-to-school activities so our children feel that their life is normal," he shares. "Take them out to get their school supplies, fun things for their lockers, new running shoes or uniforms. And in the meantime enjoy the rest of summer vacation, which never seems long enough."
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