Conversations with kids about Texas mass shooting can help build coping mechanisms

Be truthful, vulnerable and patient—that is the advice to families as they try to help their children process the horror of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas.

The massacre claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers when a gunman opened fire inside the school.

The shooting has struck emotions around the world. However, it seems children are always the ones faced with the most adversity in these terrifying situations.

"Schools are having, and they do have, active shooter drills. And so, what we might see is children thinking and making that connection saying, ‘Wow, this could happen to me.’ So, of course, they’re going to have more increased anxiety, possibly feel sad, feel angry, feel frustrated, extra worried," said Reena B. Patel, child and adolescent psychologist and parent psychologist.

Patel said talking with children about the horror of this mass shooting can be very challenging and sensitive. However, she said those conversations are so important to have to help youth build coping mechanisms. The psychologist suggests the first step towards mental healing in these situations is taking time to process the shock and trauma.

"It’s okay to share our emotions with your children, to a certain degree. Sharing that you are scared, you’re fearful, you are worried because it’s a natural response. You want your child to know that it’s okay to have those feelings. And it’s also important to create a space for them to share and talk about what they know and what they think is going on to help guide and lead a discussion," said Patel.

She said when helping children identify their emotions about the mass shooting, adults should give children a sense of safety and control. When they feel helpless or vulnerable, she suggests start watching for red flags.

"The first thing you have to do is talk about how do we create a community that is inclusive? How do we look and identify those individuals who are struggling, provide them with support and allow them to know it’s okay to be struggling, but lets get you help," said Patel.

Help with mental health is what Patel believes is lacking in schools across the nation. She said there should be more opportunities for children to speak with someone at school, so they have a safe place to express themselves and feel like they belong.

ALSO READ: How to talk to your children about school shootings in wake of Texas massacre

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"There’s a gap between the mental health system and what we’re providing to our schools. We’re lacking resources, we’re lacking school psychologists, school counselors, mental health professionals due to various reasons. We’ve got to start young. We’ve got to instill coping skills with these kids, we’ve got to have proper ways to problem solve," said Patel.

More help may be on the way for Washington. In his budget for the next two years, Governor Jay Inslee proposed $400 million that districts could use, at least in part, to support student well-being by hiring more nurses and counselors.