I’m worried about our kids and teens. Listening to stories from parents I’ve spoken to recently, it seems to me that our children are more anxious than ever before. They don’t feel safe. They’re afraid to go to school. It’s more important than ever to listen to our kids. To build empathy. And to practice compassion.
I no longer have children in school. I’m in that stage between actively parenting and (hopefully) becoming a grandparent one day. That allows me the time and energy to worry about all of our kids. And as a parent with perspective, I keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in our schools today.
Parents and teachers have noticed a marked increase in anxiety and depression in their kids and students for several years. But since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, all I’ve heard from parents is how their children are having trouble sleeping, are talking about code reds, and questioning how safe they really are in their classrooms. Some are telling me that their kids are “freaking out” on a regular basis.
The reality is that there are threats to our kids’ sense of safety and security. The incidence of gun violence in our country is on the rise. Since the beginning of 2018 there have already been more than 9,000 incidents of gun violence and 36 reported mass shootings in the U.S. No place appears to be safe — our schools, movie theaters, clubs, concerts, and even our places of worship. In recent weeks, there have been widespread school closures and lockdowns because of potential threats. The climate of fear pervades many individual communities, even when these incidents are not widely publicized in the media. No wonder why our kids and their parents are anxious.
This is just one example of a mother’s story, as told to a friend of mine in my Facebook feed:
“Tonight I asked my kids, as I always do, to tell me something about their day. Here’s what my 7-year old daughter shared:
‘Today Mr. M. came into our classroom so we could learn how to do a quick exit, we all have to run and scatter around, we are supposed to run as fast as we can, scattering, and not stop, we are even allowed to run into the woods.’
For those of you who don’t know, this is the supposed new idea for how to escape a shooter, vs bunkering down and barricading in a classroom.
Hearing these words from my 7-year old made my heart sink, they filled me with dread and intense anger.
I hope you are all hearing me, in my very small village we are now teaching the kids to run and scatter to escape being mowed down by a murderer with a semi-automatic rifle designed for killing humans in war. This is what our children are learning. Think about that.”
I listen to these stories and my heart breaks. Every parent knows that it’s their job to reassure their children that they will keep them safe from harm. How can we authentically do this right now as parents and other trusted adults?
Many schools have already added extra security measures, such as local police patrols on campuses, more secure locks on doors, and other changes to minimize access to entrances to school buildings. I’ve heard discussions about kevlar blankets, bulletproof windows, and safe rooms in classrooms. I’ve also learned about more stringent policies to curb student against student violence, with threats and aggressive moves being taken more seriously. Unfortunately, I’ve also listened to some kids and parents complain about no apparent changes, with some schools choosing to carry on business as usual.
The teens at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School went back to school this week. There were 50 comfort animals to greet them, along with 200 counselors. On the gates of the building where the shootings took place, banners from other schools around the county and the country hung, with messages of welcome to the students and teachers. I was told by someone close to Parkland that all of the principals from Broward County were present that morning to greet the students as well. That is a community showing love and compassion.
Many schools throughout the country have offered access to school counselors following the mass shooting in Parkland. And many have instructed teachers to acknowledge how 17 lives were lost to a disturbed student with a semi-automatic weapon in Florida. Some administrators and teachers have invited their students to ask them questions. Some kids have taken advantage of that support, and that’s good. But many have not. And we know that trauma takes a while to sink in. And sometimes help is not available to everyone when the need finally hits.
I remember when there was a traumatic incident of violence at my son’s middle school more than 15 years ago. The school handled the incident very sensitively and offered crisis counseling to help the children through the days that followed. However, many children suffered from the post traumatic effects long after the counselors were gone. Some were fortunate enough to have access to private psychotherapy, but others were not.
As I continue to process what just recently happened in Parkland, just 50 miles from where I live in Miami, I keep having a recurrent thought: Our kids need compassion more than ever.
From the beginning of time, mothers and fathers have comforted their children by playing games, singing with them, and telling them stories with happy endings to make things better in times of danger or threat. These things are all good. And as parents we should keep doing them.
In these times of heightened anxiety, what else can we do to practice compassion with our children and teens? These may seem like minimal efforts, but these are some of the things that we as parents can do at home, now (besides mobilizing through social action):
- Listen. Sometimes our kids don’t want to talk when we have time to listen. But especially during these times, we need to be ready to listen whenever they want to talk. Even if it’s at 4am.
- Self-cultivate. Whatever ritual or practice works for you, make it a habit. Whether it’s yoga, or prayer, or mindfulness, or gratitude, or belly breathing, or loving kindness meditation, or anything else that helps you build your empathy and cultivate self-compassion. Better yet, practice as a family. You need these tools in the short term, and for the long haul. And self-cultivation builds resilience.
- Sing, dance, and play. Life can feel heavy and serious these days, and the more we can do to lighten up our day, the better. And these positivity boosters have a way of making us feel happier, less anxious, and not as much like the weight of the world is on our shoulders.
- Curate your news. Just as we select what we put out on social media, only take in what you need to know. Too much exposure to negative news compromises our emotional health, so limit your consumption as well as that of your family. And balance it with high quality information that adds to your knowledge and/or motivates you and your family to positive action.
- Hug your kids. Every day. And tell them how much you love them. No matter what.
I’d love to know what you’re doing to get through these tense times and how you’re cultivating compassion in your family. Tweet me @ParentwPerspect and find me on Facebook at Parent with Perspective.
Photo: Courtesy of JSN Photography.