How Can Adults Help Children in the Aftermath of Violence? A RULER Approach
A week ago, people were out having a good time, enjoying their lives, celebrating community, and never thinking that in a short time their lives would be over.
As we mark one week from the unimaginable violence in Orlando—the murders of 49 innocent people with over 50 people seriously injured—it’s worth reflecting on how survivors absorb unspeakable losses and how the public, as witnesses, can cope with what happened. Violent attacks terrify all of us by their randomness, the unexpected location, and the human toll.
We work with schools, and so we especially think about the teachers, administrators, staff, and parents who are in a position to talk with children about what happened, a conversation that is necessary since the event is all over the news and in surrounding discussions.
Our work has shown us that it is important that adults grapple with their own feelings first—fear, anxiety, and more—before entering conversations with children.
If you’re a teacher or a parent, your kids will count on you to do this emotional work. For the child’s sake, you need to be able to think clearly, demonstrate calm, and model the courage to respond to the tough questions. A little like putting your own oxygen masks on first, this focus on calming yourself allows you to feel into the right timing for, and the right opening into, the emotionally difficult conversations. It’s okay to allow, even make peace with, the discomfort of uncertainty—after all, the reality is that there are unanswerable questions and a frustrating lack of progress to solutions. In short, managing, rather than suppressing your feelings, allows you to reach out compassionately to others.
How, exactly, to do this is neither obvious nor easy, especially since we adults are often set in our emotional ways. The RULER skills we teach at the Center—Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions—can show a way that adults and children alike can cope with the aftermath of violence.
Here are some RULER-based suggestions for teachers:
Feel your feelings. During a traumatic event, not feeling your feelings is fine—and often necessary. When we feel threatened, the brain prepares us for action (to fight, flee, or freeze), with the result that survival responses trump feelings and thinking which only kick in later. This feeling of shock can leave you feeling numb and temporarily “frozen.” But gradually, emotions will thaw and surface. You might not even connect with them right away but only notice them as they affect your actions—for example, you notice that you’re suddenly hesitant to go to crowed public places because of fear of another event. Allow the feelings before rushing to action. Be aware of them. Give yourself permission and a lot of space to experience them. The irony about feelings is that when we connect with them, they have their own life, their own timeline, and pace of metabolizing and moving. But if we suppress or minimize them, they will not be ignored, and they can slow down the healing, create wrong decisions, or even show up as physical symptoms. Everyone has a different timeline–people’s responses to trauma and grief vary widely, so you might feel anything at any time, including intrusive grief that pops up at random times in unexpected situations. That’s normal, too.
Consider regulating them. Once your feelings are in focus, you may decide how you want to respond to them—this is bringing the thinking part of the brain to your feelings. Your response may be to do nothing about the feelings…you may sense they need more time and space or they are too raw. Or, because of need or life circumstances, you have to move the feelings a bit. Then it’s time to employ any number of strategies depending on what you want: Perhaps a calming, soothing gesture like connecting to a kindred spirit is what will feel good. Or finding a good place to mourn and grieve. Or putting on some music that nudges you just a little bit. Or reflecting in contemplation or prayer. Gentle self-talk can be helpful, like “ I’ve got this, I can do this;” “This is a horrific moment but we will get past it;” “I am in the thick of it now, but I will know how to take care of myself later.” Or an active strategy like taking a walk, or a run, or getting busy and being productive, might feel good. Or you might channel strong feelings like anger, outrage and disbelief into a letter to your congressperson or into political action. Whatever you choose, the important thing is that you are conscious of the choice you are making. You’re not denying your true feelings, simply helping them to balance or move in new or constructive directions.
Don’t go it alone. For many of us, talking to other people about feelings is hard, but the risk can be well worth it. Human beings are inherently social creatures, and our feelings are meant to be shared—in fact keeping them in can be harmful to your health. So talk to someone you trust, someone who can truly listen to and validate your feelings. Some schools or communities organize group conversations and these are often well worth taking part in.
Soothe your own feelings and those of the people around you. For maximum resilience, your brain needs periods of positive neurochemistry. So each day, pick at least one soothing activity—a hot bath, a crossword puzzle, a session with a sketchbook or a journal—that eases you into a physiological relaxation response. And do something soothing for your friends and your students each day, too. Gifts of compassion heal the giver as well.
Give gratitude for your life. In the wake of tragedy, make room for your sadness at the loss of life, your anger at the injustice of innocent deaths and the laws that allow assault weapons on the street. But also make room for gratitude: Gratitude for your life, your chance to have a tomorrow, your chance to hug the person you love. Gratitude that there are so many good people that pour into the streets, clinics, and homes of the hurt and bereaved. Gratitude that you can take a minute of silence for the beautiful souls who lost their lives.
When you are a teacher or a parent who has the privilege to care for young children, remember that it is your feelings and emotional state that the children will tune into, even more than your words. Your caring presence, your genuinely calm countenance, is what will help a child’s nervous system settle and organize in the best possible way. When you can create that kind of connection, you are already making a positive contribution to a better future.
And that’s something to be grateful for.