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Put your oxygen mask on first: a letter to parents after tragedies

It's OK (and maybe even expected) to not be OK this week and beyond. We, like you, are a twisted mix of anger, sorrow, relief and guilt. We are broken, confused and called to action yet unable to move.

It's normal to feel numb, overwhelmed but not able to look away, nauseous, unable to concentrate and full of rage, sometimes seconds apart.

It's normal to want to hold your babies tighter than you ever have before and simultaneously feel pangs of guilt for having to return to work or maintain their schedules as if nothing happened.

It's normal to drive to work or read a bedtime story to your kids and not remember the process of doing it, arriving at the destination on autopilot.

It's normal to not be able to sleep right now but so desperately needing it.

It's normal because we are going through a series of collective societal traumas. These are deeply distressing experiences that overwhelm our ability to self-regulate. The pauses between events are short, making regaining your footing all the more difficult.

But, just because it is normal, doesn't mean you have to stay here.

You have the opportunity to care for yourself, and indirectly care for your entire family, by focusing on a few things:

  1. Giving yourself intentional moments of silence and inactivity throughout the day to allow for healing and time to process.
  2. Spending 2 to 5 minutes a day in mindfulness meditation. This involves being present in the moment and grounding yourself in your body. There are lot of great guided mindful meditations on YouTube or Spotify.
  3. Promoting sleep and eating at regular intervals.
  4. Connecting with friends, colleagues and other parents because we co-regulate. Humans are social creatures and we need other humans in both joy and sorrow.
  5. Stepping away from the repeated media replay of images of horror. Our brains more easily encode images and events that hold strong emotional valence. The more we witness these images, the "stickier" they become in our brains.
  6. Allowing yourself space to feel. Having a range of emotions is totally normal and jamming them back down when they pop up only creates a bigger problem down the road. Imagine that you are like a soda bottle. Each stressful event or big emotion you try to suppress is like shaking the soda bottle. While most of the time, the bottle remains intact, unless you take steps to release the pressure slowly and in small spurts, the soda will explode out of the bottle when you actually need to open it. 
  7. Don't compare your reaction to anyone else. Some parents are feeling more or less than those around them. Don’t judge yourself for being too upset or not being impacted enough. We cannot control the emotions that surface inside us…we can only respond to what we are feeling. 
  8. When you feel something, do something. This is not a call to activism, although that may be what you choose to do. Rather, we know that coping actively with our emotions is helpful. When you feel angry, sad, guilty or anything else, take a walk, read a book to your kids, cook a meal, write down what you are feeling…whatever feels manageable. DO something. 
  9. Practice self-compassion this week and beyond. Speak to yourself like you would speak to your best friend, embrace imperfection and give yourself grace.

Following tragic events, it is easy to give up on joy but in doing so, we lose our humanity. We still deserve to feel joy in the midst of the world’s sadness. Take care of yourselves.

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Pediatric Psychology

Child Psychology

Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine