It’s a cycle that too many of us have lived through before. Something unambiguously horrific happens — a shooting at a school that is every parent’s worst nightmare made real, witnessing yet another unarmed Black person killed by police in the United States or the slow-but-sure rising death toll of living through a global pandemic — and we are bombarded via our media environment and culture with so much information, so much inaction and, of course, so much pain — while also being expected to go to work, run errands and drop our kids off at school for the day (where they’ll very likely be drilled for a similar traumatic event or be surrounded by the many anxious POVs of their peers) as though it were all normal.
It can make your brain spin and can make you feel all the worse — processing the grief that comes from witnessing repeated traumatic events, trying to figure out how to make sense of it for yourself, let alone your kids. At best, you can feel like you’re faking it or moving on a very sad version of autopilot and at worst it can feel straight-up impossible.
“The human brain is absolutely not built to process this kind of trauma, repeatedly, on a mass scale like this,” Dr. Leslie Carr, a clinical psychologist and an expert in how trauma, stress, culture, and digital technology impact the mind told SheKnows. “A lot of people are feeling really hopeless right now and, sadly, that hopelessness is understandable… Parents should not have to send their kids to school everyday not knowing whether they’ll come home, but in the United States right now this is the reality that we’re living with.”
So that is to say that if you are feeling these intense feelings, if you’re lost or aching in ways that you don’t necessarily have the ability to put to words? You’re not alone and you’re not broken. But just because the pain feels so impossibly big doesn’t mean that it’s something you and your family can’t process and take steps to work through together. But where can you start?
Let the feelings (whatever they are) exist and keep conversations open.
A good starting place is to acknowledge that there’s no one “correct” way to react to something traumatic and that doing what you need to protect your mental health is necessary and vital work: “I think it’s important to not pathologize the individual if that person is anxious, stressed, hopeless, or feeling powerless right now — because they are,” Dr. Carr says. These reactions are completely normal and understandable responses to witnessing pain like this — and there’s plenty of harm to be done by trying to just make them go away.
Particularly with people who have to compartmentalize and unplug or avoid ruminating on the tragedy in order to protect their own ability to function, she says it’s important to leave room for those needs: “I think one of the most vitally important things, I possibly could say to you today is: It’s really important that we not make that wrong. Meaning that any individual person’s need to protect their own mental health, so that they can retain their own functioning in their lives, if they need to turn off the news to do that? That’s priority number one… What the world needs more than anything is each individual person functioning at their highest capacity and… I would say absolutely they should be prioritizing taking care of themselves.”
“If your kid needs to cry, let the kid cry.”
But that doesn’t mean you can’t hold space for the feelings that do inevitably come up after something traumatic happens. Particularly when it comes to kids and teens, you’re going to want to fight the urge to simply make the “bad” feelings go away (the “don’t be sad, let’s go get ice cream” method), Carr says, as it can be helpful for us all to sit with these feelings and actually allow them to be felt.
“No matter how young or old your kid is, if they’re in a lot of distress, try to resist the urge to make it go away… The feelings they are having are real and natural and they need an outlet for them,” Carr says. “If your kid needs to cry, let the kid cry. It’s one of the worst impulses that human beings have is to try and sort of make a negative feeling go away. Really let your kids have their feelings.”
Instead, you can be there with them — as the adult that cares for them — and really, really listen as they process those emotions. Being curious, open and receptive to trying to understand their experiences more than telling them how to feel along the way can be super helpful to combatting the alienation a lot of kids experience when they feel unheard by the adults in their lives.
Don’t conflate being ‘plugged in’ with helping.
We live in a highly-connected society with the fastest media environment to ever exist. The sheer amount of information — often intense, painful or violent in nature — that demands our attention each hour is more than our brains have ever had to contend with, and it doesn’t really help that it’s baked into our everyday routines as people wake up to scroll Twitter or keep the TV news blaring in the background of their daily tasks.
While it makes sense that compassionate, thoughtful people would want to stay engaged and informed about events and issues they care about, it’s important to remember that consuming media about something horrifying is not the same as taking action against it. Being glued to your computer screen inflicting psychic damage on yourself with every new heartbreaking detail for multiple hours at a time isn’t doing more to benefit anyone seeking solutions than someone who is taking a more structured approach to consuming the news and taking meaningful action. In fact, it might be paralyzing you and hurting more.
“…Merely paying attention and watching the news or retweeting something or being in that soup? No one benefits from that.”
“Bluntly, our attention to something has no net positive impact on it,” Carr says. “There is not a parent in Texas right now who lost one of their children whose day is going to be a better because somebody in Tulsa, Oklahoma is watching the news and crying about it. We’re not actually benefitting anybody by deteriorating our own mental health by paying attention… We can be informed and we can vote with our wallets, choose where we want to spend our money and where we want to give our vote, but merely paying attention and watching the news or retweeting something or being in that soup? No one benefits from that.”
Meanwhile the benefits of stepping away from the news and technology for a few hours, really stepping into and grounding yourself in your physical life while connecting with other humans are clear.
“For most people, however, I think the best thing they can do right now is turn off the news and really plug in to their individual lives as much as humanly possible,” Carr says. “If you’re a parent, for example, turn off the news (all digital devices) and spend time with your children doing something that feels relaxing or constructive, like playing at the park or making dinner together.”
Modeling this behavior of unplugging and setting boundaries on consumption to be more meaningful can be especially helpful for young people who are, on average, more plugged-in to their devices than ever but also, as we’ve seen with Gen Z, incredibly driven to take action. From there, you can have conversations and connect over larger systemic problems that need to be processed and what your family’s part can be in addressing them. It could mean strategizing over what kind of activism inspires them and finding ways to get involved, attending a protest together, engaging with your local elected officials on the ground or looking at ways to not feel so hopeless and helpless in the face of something traumatic and painful.
And in the immediate, Carr emphasizes again that “present minded awareness” is a good entry point to starting that coping process. That means “being extremely present (as present as possible) with the immediacy of your reality: the sights, smells, noises, and tactile experiences that are available right around you. It does work — but it sometimes sounds trite in comparison to the level of collective suffering we’re currently experiencing.”
A version of this story was published May 2022.
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