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Interview with Dr. Jennifer Bauwens: How Parents Can Help Children Process the Uvalde School Shooting

As America continues to wrestle with the aftermath of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, many school-age children may be experiencing trauma, wondering whether they are safe at school. On the Friday edition of “Washington Watch,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins interviewed Dr. Jennifer Bauwens about how parents and other caretakers can help children process the tragedy in a healthy way. Dr. Bauwens has worked extensively as a clinician providing trauma-focused treatment to children in foster-care and behavioral health settings. Her scholarship has focused on the effects of psychological trauma, including man-made and natural disasters. For the benefit of our readers, the entire interview has been reproduced below. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tony Perkins, FRC president, host of “Washington Watch”: Now I want to talk about, as moms and dads, grandparents, when these events occur, you have children who may not be saying anything, but they’re watching and they’re listening. And this is wall to wall. I mean, the worst thing you can do is have the television on cable news 24/7. And I go into so many houses — we don’t have cable. We don’t have television, because I don’t need to hear what’s bad. I know it’s bad. But [for] some people, this is going on and on and on and on and on. And kids are watching it, and they’re processing this, and they’re internalizing it, and it’s increasing their stress. It’s increasing their sense of isolation. And so, we’re not having conversations with them, unless we’re being intentional about it. And what happens? Well, it begins this cascading effect. So, what do we need to do? Well, joining me now to talk about this is someone who has extensive experience in crisis counseling. And she is here at the Family Research Council. She is our director for the Center of Family Studies, Dr. Jennifer Bauwens. Jennifer, welcome back to the program.

Dr. Jennifer Bauwens, director of FRC’s Center for Family Studies: Thanks for having me, Tony.

PERKINS: All right. With your background as a trauma counselor, let me just [ask]. The situation there in Uvalde, Texas, is one thing, but this is affecting children all across America and families all across America. What should we be looking for and how should we be having conversations?

BAUWENS: Yeah, you’re right. This is something that our society is experiencing across the board right now. I think COVID — especially the beginning of COVID — really opened the door to a pervasive sense of trauma. I’m not saying that it met criteria, necessarily, for PTSD, but our culture right now has gone through a lot of trauma. As you know, Tony, I also did research with the families of 9/11, and I’ve worked with families from Virginia Tech and other university school shootings. And what you find, whether it’s in the interpersonal trauma world or if it’s one of these communal trauma world, a lot of the experiences and reactions are the same. And so, there are some things that we can look for. That, regardless of what your family member is dealing with, the kind of trauma they’re dealing with, some of these reactions are going to be the same.

And, you already mentioned, one of the things that we learned from 9/11 is that we don’t want to just keep the television going. We don’t want to keep these traumatic scenes and the grief reactions going. If you’re not equipped to handle that, there’s no benefit because you’re exposing yourself to someone’s emotional reactions — and it’s just going to produce a sense of helplessness in your response. And it’s not going to be productive for your children, either, to see that imagery going on. And we know that people can actually mimic traumatic responses like being there in the first hand from media exposure.

PERKINS: Right. And as you said, it’s like in a loop. It’s constant. It’s constant. And to survive this, whether you’re close to it or you’re removed from it — I mean, as a society, we’re all there. We’re all experiencing [it]. Because I think people are saying enough is enough. I mean, every parent who has had children is, should be, and I think are empathizing with these parents in Uvalde, Texas.

But you have to have, number one, I think, coping skills. You’ve got to be able to cope with this when you’re exposed to it. And unfortunately, we live in a society where, especially younger people and children, are not being taught coping skills. So number one, they’ve got one strike against them. They don’t really have — you know, we talk about snowflakes, they can’t cope. Then you have to have some kind of healthy support. And if you don’t have the family structure there to have these conversations where you can get a healthy perspective, maybe a broader perspective. And because people say, how could God allow something like this to happen? And I think these are important conversations that informed adults need to be having with their children.

BAUWENS: Yeah. We need to be talking to our children and opening the lines of communication, giving them opportunity to ask questions, and even questions about faith, to not be afraid of that. God’s not afraid of those questions. So neither should we [be]. And so I think it’s really important to let them ask those questions. They don’t understand what’s happening, and they may not even understand your emotions. And that’s okay, within limits, to share your own experiences, that you’re distressed as well. You certainly don’t want to make the topic about your own experiences.

But I’ll say this, that one of the things that’s very common in trauma is that it’s very uncontrollable. That’s the very nature of a traumatic event. So, what do we tend to look for when something’s uncontrollable? We look for control. And we can try to live in the past to predict the future. So, one of the things that we don’t want to do is live from that place, where we’re living out and anticipating the next trauma. So, it’s important as we’re talking to our children, we open up those lines of communication, that we’re saying, “Yes, this was a dangerous situation, but you are safe now.” And just to begin to unpack that a bit, like, “You’re safe on your street,” or whatever the case may be. You look for those points where you are safe.

And then, Tony, I think it’s also important that, as we’re having these discussions with our kids, that we don’t do it without God. For those of us who have a faith in God, who know Jesus, that we invite Jesus into that process because he is the I Am. And, like I said, trauma wants to bring us out of the present and into the past, or anticipating something bad in the future. But God is the one who’s present. And so, when we invite him into our process, He’s also the God of all hope. So, we can also kind of gauge our level of how much God is involved in our process by our measure of hope as well.

PERKINS: Dr. Bauwens, I want to go back to something you said about helping our kids feel safe, because you and I have talked about this before in another context — the mind, the brain is developing. And children see things a lot differently than adults because they’re in their twenties before their brain is fully developed. And a part of that is children tend to see things more literal. They cannot process those other elements. And so, while we see this as a far-removed event that doesn’t affect us here, it affects children in a different way.

BAUWENS: Yeah, that’s right. And depending on the age of the child, they may not have the same verbal skills that we have, and they may experience the trauma more at a physiological level. So, you may hear the child say things like, “I’m having stomach aches,” or headaches, or other pain in their body. They may express it in the nighttime; they may have more nightmares. You know, there are other ways that children tend to express that. And if you’re not paying attention, you can miss that because they’re not being as verbal as what we’re used to as adults. So, it’s important to just kind of pay attention to if there have been relationship changes, maybe some strains on a particular relationship. Or have their habits changed? Or maybe they’re talking about the event kind of incessantly. So, those are keys for us to look at and think, “Okay, maybe we need to have some more conversations about this,” and assess where we need to proceed from there.

PERKINS: So those are some of the warning signs that parents should be looking for if their child is processing this and beginning to display stress over this incident.

BAUWENS: That’s right. And they may not be directly involved, but we have to also consider the fact that all schools are probably on high alert right now. And there’s a there’s a sense in the air. I mean, we feel it. When the events happened in New York about a month ago — when there was a violent attack on the subway — if you ride the metro, you’re a little bit more hyper-vigilant than perhaps you were before. So, think from the child’s perspective. Even if they’re not articulating it, they’re feeling the stress and the apprehension about school and the possible threat.

PERKINS: Yeah. The main thing is, as you said earlier, the keeping of the lines of communication open, talking through these things, not rehearsing it over and over and spending too much time on it, but looking for and having conversations, and talking about it. Because this is a tragic event. This shakes our world. I mean, when you think about this, when you have kids in elementary school — and this is not just an isolated incident; we’re seeing this far too often. And I think kids look to parents, saying, “Who’s going to solve this?” And I think we need to talk to our kids about what the solutions are as well, that if we as a society don’t return to an understanding of who God is and who we are as His creation, and we don’t return to a boundary of right and wrong, that unfortunately we’re going to continue to see this. And I do think that that’s a part of helping our kids process what’s important, that if we keep doing the same thing, you need to be ready because we’re probably going to get the same results.

BAUWENS: I think that’s right. You know, there’s a larger picture at play with these with these shootings, and I believe your last guest alluded to a lot of those issues. We are in the midst of a mental health crisis. But it’s also a crisis of faith and a crisis of relationship — or, in my field we call it “attachment.” And if those root causes aren’t addressed, we will continue to get the same thing.

PERKINS: Yeah. I think there’s other evidence in our society of this, the increase in homelessness, the detachment with family, all of this. Dr. Jennifer Bauwens, always great to talk with you.