An Open Letter to Parents: After a School Shooting

By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

One of the most horrifying events has happened. Your child attends a school where there has been a shooting. Someone is dead. Someone else is responsible. Within this awful reality, you and your child are navigating the emotions of fear, anger, loss and trying to find a path forward.

This letter is to help you as a parent be as supportive and emotionally available as possible so that your child can feel safer and function better.

In the wake of trauma, it is normal to feel terrified, exhausted, furious and even numb, or as if nothing is real.

Imagine that a traumatic event is like a surge of electricity and that this surge pops the circuit of our mind’s normal ability to process reality.

You can expect the following behaviors from your child: they may regress in independence. They may want you to make them food or even cuddle them the way you did when they were younger. It is normal and helpful for your child to receive extra love, care, and declarations of support. If your child wants to sleep on the floor of your bedroom, this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do right now.

Alternately, they might also pull back, shut down and even direct their anger at you for expressing concern. If this happens, try not to take it personally and instead imagine that they are telling you through their behavior, “Right now I need to avoid or release pent up distress about the event.”

They may have a greater need to be in touch with other classmates and friends at this time. While you can maintain whatever rules you already have regarding screen time and social media access, you may consider liberalizing those rules for the next three weeks by allowing your child to text, Snap and Discord more frequently to process their experience with others.

Your child may have a harder time attending to school work, and may neglect homework or studying. Teachers understand that in the wake of school shootings, it is harder to focus and learn. You can reach out to your child’s teacher to make accommodations if necessary.

It is normal for your child to want to talk about what they heard/felt/and are thinking about now. If you have difficulty listening to your child talk about this event, consider getting help for yourself and/or making sure your child has a trusted adult to talk about it with.

If your child seems extra sleepy that is normal as well, but if they are neglecting to eat, shower or they are staying in bed all day, that would be a strong indicator that they need additional help and could benefit from talking to a therapist.

Additionally if they cannot sleep and this does not resolve within a few days, they may need additional support.

Above all, remember that help is available and neither you nor your child should have to navigate this scary and traumatic time alone.

Inhabiting Solitude

Photo by from Pexels

By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

“All I want to do is eat chocolate cake and sleep.”

“I accidentally tried to hug my neighbor whose brother just died, and she shrank back like I was a cobra.”

“Some guy told me to stop petting his cat.”

These are weird times.

My therapist friends and I have all been messaging each other about the transition to telehealth in response to the pandemic.  We miss the immediacy and vibrancy of in-person sessions. Between audio glitches and freezing screens, we miss the ease that being in the same room as our clients provided. Like all of us, we are doing our best, figuring it out as we go along.

None of us know how long this situation will last. We don’t know how bad it will get. We don’t know if all of our loved ones will survive. We don’t know if the supply chain will be interrupted. We don’t know the long-term effect on the economy.

Humans like to quantify. We want to know what to expect and how to prepare. To feel safe, we want know what’s coming and how to endure or enjoy it.

And that is precisely what we don’t get to know right now. In the absence of certainty, many of us default to following the news as closely as we can. In this new landscape of invisible enemies, virologists and epidemiologists are the leaders. Doctors and nurses the front-line soldiers.

We must take this pandemic seriously enough to radically change our behavior for the foreseeable future. No more get togethers. No more movie theatres, or restaurants or nights out on the town. No more school. Every surface that someone touched is a possible transmission spot.

On the other hand, we still need to walk the dog, cook meals, vacuum, fold laundry. Focusing on small, doable tasks brings a sense of normalcy, of continuity to our lives.  We need to balance taking appropriate personal responsibility for protecting others along with continuing to have a full life that includes love, learning, exercise, joy, mindfulness, flavor, progress, and creativity.

As we drill down deep in to our time at home, with family if we are lucky enough to have them in the same household (and you’re right, it doesn’t always feel like luck) I wish for you an opening into realms you haven’t visited since childhood. I wish for you thinking time, staring into space time, imagining time. Dream time is slow and mysterious and a rich source of creative inspiration.

On the other end of this situation, we can emerge rested and connected to our deepest selves, ready to engage with one another from a place of deep gratitude.

Viral Fears

By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

Here in Seattle we have the unfortunate claim of being the epicenter of the US outbreak of the Novel Corona virus. Diagnostic criteria are still being refined, and confirmed cases increase daily. Most public gatherings have been cancelled, some schools have closed, and travel is being put on hold. This flu seems to be most dangerous for our elderly and immunocompromised, so it is unlike the influenza epidemic of 1918 which was especially lethal for young adults and children. It does however seem quite contagious.

For the majority of us, even if we get it and must quarantine ourselves, the most likely negative consequence is loss of income/education and a certain degree of cabin fever. These are inconvenient but luxurious concerns compared to death.

A good citizen is one who cares for the group as a whole. Even though we may be below age seventy and free of underlying health issues, we are each responsible for doing our part to care for the tribe that is the public. It is likely that a good number of us will need to quarantine to slow the progress of this virus.

Here are some measures that can be taken to reduce transmission:

  1. Wash all of your clothes each time you wear them. It appears that the virus can live on fabric for up to a week. The dryer is a germ-killing machine.
  2. Clean “high touch” areas such as door knobs, light switches, faucets and handles daily. At work don’t open doors or turn on/off faucets with your bare hands.
  3. Wipe your phone screen and computer keyboard daily.
  4. Wash your hands like an OCD person: hot water, twenty seconds of lathering, plus a paper towel equals clean.
  5. At home, switch out your kitchen and bathroom hand-towels every day. Or switch to paper towels for the duration.
  6. Try not to touch your face. This is hard! With every itch, I’m going through tissues like a fiend.

In preparation for your mental health needs, under self-quarantine:

  • Put together a list of projects for yourself and your kids in the categories of household, yard and bedroom tasks as well as creative/intellectual projects so you can still experience purpose and progress in your life.  
  • Pull out those books you’ve been meaning to read.
  • While you’re still healthy and mobile, get the ingredients to tackle cooking something new and challenging. An hour of prep is nothing for someone with two weeks of 24 hours to fill.
  • Maintain a normal sleep/wake schedule. Late nights watching Netflix plus isolation are a recipe for depression.

No matter what happens:

  1. The amygdala and limbic systems are the portions of the brain responsible for recognizing potential danger. The news is a constant amygdala stimulation event. The prefrontal cortex can calm the hindbrain down with conscious and soothing self-talk. Use your prefrontal cortex.

We will get through this.