ST. LOUIS — Local health experts have offered advice to families as they embark on a daunting task: advising St. Louis-area students in the wake of Monday’s shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.
Pediatricians and counselors have advised parents and guardians, above all, to recognize their own emotions and model healthy strategies to overcome them.
“I think every parent in the St. Louis area today is feeling a little shaken and scared,” said Dr. T. Eric Spiegel, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington.
Spiegel advised parents to start by freely expressing their emotions to a partner or another trusted adult. This will help them work through some of their own pain and plan how they will talk about it with their child. Parents don’t want to be so overwhelmed by their own distress that their child doesn’t have a safe space to express their emotions.
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“As parents, we may not know how much we’ve been affected by something until we start talking about it,” said Spiegel, who is also medical director of behavioral health services for patients hospitalized at BJC HealthCare Children’s Hospital. “Then you can say, ‘OK, I somehow got this out of my system, or took care of myself. And now I can feel competent to take care of my children, and do so in a thoughtful way.
For very young children, in kindergarten or earlier, Spiegel said, caregivers might decide to say nothing or say something “very simple.” For example, they could say that a dangerous person was in a high school, people were injured, and the police and other helpers arrested him.
It’s natural for caregivers to tend to calm and reassure them, which is good, said Dr. Ken Haller, professor of pediatrics at St. Louis University School of Medicine and pediatrician at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon.
“But it’s also important for us to let the kids know that we’re scared, that we’re angry, that we’re sad,” Haller said. “Sometimes when we’re comforting kids, it can feel like ‘don’t feel bad’.”
In times of tragedy, Haller said, it’s “normal, natural and healthy” to feel bad. The overriding message from adults to their children should be: I will be there for you.
Some children and adults might feel motivated to take action, Haller said. For children and caregivers, this could mean getting involved in advocacy around school and gun safety. For teachers and students, this could mean making cards for those affected by the incident at school.
Some kids might be curious and want to get as much information about the shooting as possible, Spiegel said. Parents may want to explain that they need to know quite a bit, but learning more will likely make them angry and not helpful.
Adults can advise their children against learning about these events on social media, where they are more likely to encounter misinformation and extreme emotions and opinions.
Parents can also plan to have these talks earlier – like during dinner, rather than just before bedtime, so kids can move on to lighter activity afterwards.
Parents could follow their children more closely for some time after the incident, experts said. They can watch for signs of depression, such as nightmares, changes in eating habits, social isolation, or other fundamental behavioral changes.
Children involved in such traumatic situations sometimes have physical complaints, such as headaches or stomach aches. Some may have changes in their school habits, such as difficulty concentrating. They may have strong reactions to reminders, such as loud noises, friends who were present during the incident, or the school itself.
St. Louis-area schools could strategize how they want to communicate Monday’s events to students. The topic will almost certainly come up naturally in classrooms across the region, and it’s a good idea for teachers to give students a space to express their emotions and talk about how they’re feeling at school.
“Taking a break from daytime teaching in the St. Louis area, today or tomorrow, in high schools, sounds like a really good idea to me,” Spiegel said.
If you’re experiencing behavior that isn’t typical of you, such as insomnia or loss of appetite, or if you notice it in someone else, it’s a signal to seek help.
Behavioral Health Response’s 24/7/365 Crisis Line and Youth Connection Helpline offer a free clinician. Dial 988, 314-469-6644 or 314-819-8802 (youth). Young people can also chat online at www.bhrstl.com or text BHEARD on 31658.
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