In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Reneé Breazeale, administrator of the Texas Health Recovery and Wellness Center, discusses how to navigate school shooting-related fears with your children as they return to the classroom.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Alexis Allison: So Reneé, Fort Worth ISD begins (school) next week. A lot of schools begin next week. First, can you talk to us about some of the general anxieties that kids and teens may feel as they enter this new season?
Reneé Breazeale: Absolutely. I think this is a stressful time for both parents and kiddos. As they’re entering a new school year, there’s always the traditional anxieties: “Will I fit in? Am I smart enough? Will I be able to do the work? What will my friends think about me? Will I make new friends?” I mean, all of those things are very, very typical for this time of the year. It’s just a little more stressful for kids — and for us, because we want to protect them. We want everything to go well. We don’t want our children to be subjected to any kind of negative interactions, bullying, or negative comments or anything like that. There’s also the anxiety of, “Will my teachers understand me? Will I get along with them? Will we be able to navigate the tough subjects?”
Allison: We’ve had another year of school shootings, and I’m particularly thinking about the shooting in Uvalde that took place at the end of last school year. How might the recency of that shooting affect students as they’re going back to school?
Breazeale: I think that, it depends on where they’re at developmentally, right? Some of our younger children are not going to be able to comprehend what those shootings meant, and what the risk is for themselves. Our older kids will probably have a better understanding of the risk. But whether or not that they’re able to really identify that and articulate that really depends on the child and their emotional development and their ability to connect emotions with behavior with situations.
But I do think, in general, whether they’re able to articulate it or not, it does add another layer of concern, and just fear, again, (for) parents and children and educators, because those things have become too much a part of the fabric of our life. So, yeah, it’s the horror that we never really are … we can’t plan for that. We’re not really built for that. And I think that it just adds another layer subconsciously and consciously of anxiety.
Allison: You mentioned being a mom. It’s my understanding that you have a 12-year-old son? How do you talk about these things with him?
Breazeale: Oh, my gosh, I like to think I have this little bag of tricks. But that is so not my truth. I am just like every other mom, and I am often at a loss. At 12, his brain is not fully developed. He’s still not able to make those connections that I so desperately want him to make, in that, the fear and the anxiety is what’s driving the behavior, right? So instead, what we get is irritability, agitation, maybe difficulty sleeping, changes in food patterns, changes in social interactions.
And you just, as a parent, have to navigate that with grace and patience. I believe in having very open conversations within the context of what he can understand. So one of our tricks is, when it’s too much for you, I need you to say, “Stop.” So when the war in Ukraine started in March, that was very difficult. There was a lot of media coverage of that. Some of the media coverage I felt like was pretty graphic, and it would be on the news every night. And he would be like, “What’s happening? Why are they doing that? I don’t understand.” And so sometimes we’d start talking about the politics behind it. And he would be like, “I don’t understand any of that.” There’s not an easy way to explain war. There’s not an easy way to explain violence in our schools. And so sometimes you just have to acknowledge that you don’t understand it. That is, unfortunately, our truth.
I do like to focus on resiliency factors and safety factors: “What can you do to be safe? What are your best choices in a situation where something is happening that feels unsafe or scary for you?”
One of the things that my son said: “Mom, I really wish that the news would give us a choice, and that they would put all this stuff on one channel, and if you wanted to watch that you could, but then they would put all the other nonviolent stuff on another channel, and then you could choose to watch that too. Or only watch that.” And I thought, that’s pretty darn smart. I wish we had those kinds of choices. And so I think that when you think about that in the context of school violence, we don’t have those choices.
Allison: I love that he brought that suggestion up, because it speaks to informed consent. And I think journalists don’t always do a good job offering that or creating space for it. So I appreciate that point.
Breazeale: Right. I thought it was a lovely way to articulate what he was feeling.
Allison: It sounds like you are open about having conversation with him, you answer his questions, and then you ask him questions as well. I’m wondering, what are other strategies that you might recommend to anyone who works with or has kids, when it comes to these anxieties and fears?
Breazeale: I think just being transparent and honest and respectful, right? I think sometimes adults can patronize kids, maybe talk down to them. And in these situations, the truth is, none of us really have great answers. None of us are really, again, prepared for the tragedy and the horror of Uvalde.
And so I think that, with children, no matter their age, I think to have a transparent and authentic conversation. It’s OK to not know. It’s OK to be concerned and frightened and sad about it. And if you’re an educator in a classroom filled with these children who are trying to navigate this horrible, new reality, then, be transparent with them: It is also your new reality. And, what can we do collectively? What is something we can do as a classroom, as a family, as a group that will help us feel safer? Is there a safe person that you would feel comfortable talking to these things about?
I think the other thing for parents and educators is to remember that, as a parent, my child may not want to talk to me about these things. He may feel more comfortable talking to his peers about that, about the school’s bullying or the fact that someone may actually carry a gun to school and may actually use that weapon. He may want to talk to his best friend about that, and not me, and I have to learn to be OK with that. He may choose to come to me and say, “I really think I need to talk to a therapist or a doctor.” I have to be OK with that. And I am. And I think sometimes parents struggle a little bit with that, because it feels like a loss of control. And the truth is, it’s really empowerment of your child, and your child identifying their own coping strategies.
Texas Health offers free behavioral health assessments. To schedule an assessment, visit here or call 682-626-8719.
Other mediums like drawing, music, breathing exercises, physical exercise, all of those things can be very helpful as well, to help them with anxiety, feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes taking breaks from social media, taking breaks from the news, taking breaks from talking about those things can be helpful, as well. So it may be the beginning of the school year, the parents don’t watch the news when the kids are in the area with them. And just talk about their school day, talk about their work day, connect on a really intimate and authentic level. I think (the) key is establishing and keeping communication open.
Allison: Those are great tips. Reneé, thank you so much. Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
Breazeale: I joke a lot about living with mom guilt because I work and he’s not always with me, and that is such a truth for so many families. I think that managing our guilt helps us be more authentic and present for children. Managing our own fears is very important. And so I encourage parents and educators alike to make sure that they have self-care skills in place, as well as have a mom tribe or have a teacher tribe that you can talk to and process through your days and your weeks and your fears and your anxieties so that we take care of ourselves as adults, so that we can be more present and more responsible, I guess, would be the word, with our children and for our children.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.