There have been 30 mass shootings in the US this year, as of Feb. 15. In the wake of one of the most recent and horrific, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, students have mobilized to create an incredible movement demanding change on gun control. Following on a nationwide school walkout March 24, they will march on Washington to demand safety in our nation’s schools.
In the aftermath of these tragedies, there is understandably an enormous amount of media coverage and political activity around the dangers in our schools and the need for stricter gun control. What effect does all this national attention on school shootings have on school-aged children? And how exactly should we talk to our children about these incidents in a time when anxiety in teenagers is already on the rise?
Much of the advice about how to talk to kids about school shootings has focused on reassuring kids that their schools are safe. While this is clearly important, on its own, reassurance can only go so far. It may even make some worry-prone kids more anxious. Instead, the focus should be on equipping kids with the tools they need to manage their own anxieties and on giving them concrete actions to take when something terrible does happen.
There are several key methods for managing anxiety that can be taught and modeled both at home and at school. These include teaching kids mindfulness and how to take a pause to avoid getting carried away with intense anxiety; and teaching kids to be aware of their emotions and to label them in moments of distress. We also need to be sure to let kids know that it’s okay to feel anxious. The key is to teach them to accept their feelings and not squash them, which often backfires. We also need to let them talk about how they feel without excessively reassuring them and make sure that they are not avoiding everyday activities due to their anxiety.
Another important tactic that can help reduce anxiety significantly is to give kids concrete actions to take in the aftermath of a tragedy like a school shooting. Neuroscience research has shown that when people are overwhelmed with a situation they feel they cannot control, they freeze with fear and their anxiety can become incapacitating. Our knowledge of this phenomenon actually comes from research with rats. After hearing a tone paired with a shock, a rat will become conditioned to freeze with fear upon hearing the tone alone subsequently. The parts of the brain that are activated in association with this freezing behavior are those that are associated with anxiety and fear.
However, if the rat is shown a door by which it can escape if it hears the tone, neural impulses are routed to a different area of the brain called the ventral striatum that is associated with motivated action. The freezing behavior is then eliminated. Even just the perception that escape is possible alleviates the freezing response to a fear stimulus in rodents. The same phenomenon is applicable in humans. We become frozen with fear when we think there is no action to take, but as soon as we are given concrete actions in response to something anxiety-provoking, our anxiety levels reduce and we are motivated to do something.
This research can be powerfully applied to helping kids cope with anxiety in response to frightening tragedies. If all we do is try to reassure them but don’t help them see that they can take some kind of action, they might end up feeling overwhelmed with anxiety. On the other hand, if we suggest concrete actions they can take in response to these tragedies, we may be able to assuage some of that anxiety. The actions can be as involved as those the students from Stoneman Douglas themselves have taken in response to the shooting. Or they can be lighter touch, like writing letters to victims’ families or researching how to help victims of bullying. The exact actions that are suggested are less important than the overall approach of empowering children in ways that will help them overcome their anxiety.
Some helpful legislative action has taken place since the Parkland tragedy, including passage of H.R. 4909 in the House, in part to develop better reporting and threat assessment systems in schools. But it’s not enough. We need to address the true threat of gun violence in this country and the easy availability of guns. Until we can do that effectively, it’s essential that we equip our kids with the tools they need to handle uncomfortable emotions that inevitably arise as a result of tragic news, gun-related or otherwise. The action the students of Stoneman Douglas are taking in the aftermath of the shooting should serve as a powerful example, as we work to empower our kids to take care of themselves and each other.