After the San Bernardino, California, attack, my Facebook news feed was filled with post after post from parents anxious about yet another mass shooting and worried about their own safety and that of their children.
I can certainly relate. So can many other parents I know. In fact, a parent at my children’s school wrote on Facebook that she was speechless after she asked her kids if there were ever lockdown drills at school and heard their response.
“Yes, we all hide behind the desk and huddle together because if a man with a gun were at the window, he wouldn’t see us behind the desk,” one of her daughters replied.
The fact that our children have to do these drills is anxiety-inducing. The reality that a mass shooting can conceivably happen anywhere and any time leaves many of us even more on edge. But how do we prevent passing along our own anxiety about this scary and uncertain world to our children?
David Anderegg, author of “Worried All the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It,”thinks it’s the responsibility of adults not to let our anxiety rub off on our kids.
“I think the problem is sometimes when adults feel very, very anxious, they tell themselves, ‘Oh, as long as my kids are OK, I’m OK,’ and so they then start to wonder, ‘Are my kids OK?’ ” said Anderegg, a psychotherapist for children and adults in Lenox, Massachusetts.
“You feel anxious so you check with your child, ‘Do you feel anxious? Do you feel anxious?’ Sooner or later, probably sooner, they will start to feel anxious.”
Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, believes it’s natural for parents to feel some anxiety, especially after a tragedy like a mass shooting, but what parents might not realize is how often children, beginning at the youngest ages, adopt coping mechanisms from watching us.
“They are used to you, and then in a time of crisis, they’re looking to you for the cues, ‘Are we safe?’ and if you’re running around going, ‘Oh, I guess I don’t feel comfortable going to work,’ they’re certainly going to feel that way as well,” said Saltz, author of “Becoming Real: Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back.” “You set the tone of what’s safe and what’s not.”
What adults need to do when they feel anxious, such as after a mass shooting like the one in San Bernardino in which 14 people were killed, is debrief in person — not just on social media — with other adults, said Anderegg,who is on the faculty in psychology at Bennington College.
“If you feel anxious and you need to talk about your anxiety or the tragedy or your sadness or grief or the lack of meaning or whatever it is that you need to talk about, you need to talk to other adults before you talk to your children, because other adults are the proper place to process these kinds of adult feelings,” he said. “So, my advice is don’t use your child as your therapist.”
Sure, it’s OK to be honest with your kids and say you are feeling somewhat anxious, but sharing more information than they are equipped to process is only going to make them feel more on edge, he said.
“This does require some acting on our part and I think acting is fine,” Anderegg said. “Because talking to 12-year-olds and saying, ‘Oh my God, I’m really freaked out’ … is not appropriate, because kids can’t do anything to keep themselves safe and all they can do is feel unsafe.”
‘Putting your own oxygen mask on first’
Taking care of our own anxiety that surfaces after a tragedy can be the best thing we can do to help our children feel safe, said Saltz.
“It’s definitely a matter of putting your own oxygen mask on first, because you can best help your child if you’ve contained your own anxiety,” she said. In addition to talking to other adults, anxious parents might embrace other anxiety-reducing activities such as aerobic exercise, deep breathing and hot baths. Turning off the nonstop news coverage also can help, she said.
“Not having it just so omnipresent, because you do increase the perception of frequency and then it gets harder to say, ‘Hey, this is a rare event,’ which it is,” said Saltz.
Most anxieties are based on probability overestimation, said Anderegg. “You get on a plane and you think you are going to crash because you greatly overestimate the number of planes that actually crash,” he said. Because the frequency of mass shootings in the United States has increased, some of us think they are more likely to happen, he added.