Don’t Put on a Brave Face: 5 Things Every Parent Can Do When Tragedy Unmoors Us
It's hard not to feel worn down, defeated, angry or numb after hearing about the 21 lives lost in the Uvalde, Texas, shooting. And everyone from therapists to Oprah Winfrey will tell you that in times of tragedy, you’ve “got to put your own oxygen mask on first.” But how do you do that when you’re caring for others, trying to put on a brave face and give them the support they need? How do you keep from imploding yourself?
We spoke to doctors and psychologists to get practical, actionable tips on what every parent and caregiver can do to find stability in these trying times.
1. Check in with yourself first
Oprah was right—in order to have the energy to care for others, you need to look inward first. That may mean talking to your partner or friends, journaling or meditating to help process how you’re feeling and what’s on your mind.
“It is important to name your own emotions and fears before engaging with your children,” says Dr. Nina Vasan, who serves as the Chief Medical Officer for on-demand mental health service Real. “Be mindful of not suppressing your own feelings. And despite the recurring incidents, it is important not to become numb to this. It is really important to sit with it, even if it is very difficult or painful.”
2. Be Open—Without Oversharing
The internal tug-of-war: Experts tell you to be authentic with your kids, but how much information is too much information? To that end, most experts agree you should talk to your kids about major world events, such as the shooting in Uvalde, since they’re likely to hear about it somewhere, and you want to create a safe space for them to talk (and clear up any misconceptions or fears they may have).
And you don’t want to gloss over it all with a “don’t worry! Everything is fine!” reaction. Kids “know when something is concerning to you or is not right,” Michael Roeske, licensed clinical psychologist and Executive Director of Newport Healthcare Connecticut, told us. “In this sense, don’t tell them something much different than how you are doing.”
That’s why the initial check-in is so important—when you process how you’re feeling, you can feel more in control of the conversation with your kids, engaging with them in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. (More on that here.)
“Less is more. While it is important to be honest and convey the facts, avoid being overly graphic in speaking about the tragedy,” Dr. Vasan says. “Similarly, you don’t need to belabor the conversation. Say what is needed to thoughtfully respond to your child’s questions but avoid oversharing.”
3. Preserve Your Routine
When the world feels chaotic, it’s easy for your routine to get thrown out the window too. Eating balanced meals, sleeping seven to nine hours a night, moving daily and connecting with friends and family can go a long way in preventing burnout.
Dr. Vasan also recommends a few other simple acts of self-care, like starting a mindfulness or gratitude practice, or getting in on the Swedish act of friluftsliv (aka spending time outside). “Whether it is a walk around the block, sticking your feet in the grass at the park or going on a hike, time outside can be deeply restorative,” Dr. Vasan says. Give yourself permission to step away from the 24-hour newsfeed and do something just for the sake of you.
4. Take Action
These days, it’s become a widely shared meme that tragedy strikes, we rant on social media for 48 hours, life goes “back to normal,” and we forget about it until history repeats itself. If you’re feeling frustrated by this, get to the root of what’s bothering you, what changes you’d like to see and commit to being proactive. It doesn’t need to be your full- or part-time job; even just calling your senators or registering to vote can help you express your emotions and work toward change.
5. Watch Out for Signs of a Stress Avalanche
You may not be directly affected by the shooting in Uvalde or other heartbreaking events in the news, but Dr. Vasan assures that it is completely normal to feel stressed and worried nonetheless. She encourages people to watch out for changes in your mood or behavior, which could signal that stress is getting to you. Some things to consider:
- Are you sleeping far less or more than usual?
- Are you irritable, short-tempered, angry or sad—and do those feelings feel uncontrollable?
- Do you feel numb and disconnected, unable to take care of yourself or others how you normally would?
- Do you find yourself missing meetings or deadlines, and just a sense of dropping the ball continually at work?
“If you notice any of these red flags—or that things are getting worse (because really it should be before these red flags occur)—it is a sign that you should reach out to your doctor for extra help,” Dr. Vasan says. “They can provide treatments and resources.” You’re not alone, and you don’t have to do it all on your own.