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#8 Blog 2022

June 1, 2022

Appendicitis? No, My Child Is Scared to Go to School

As parents and guardians, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, teachers and support staff, we want to protect our kids from every bad thing we can.

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This past Friday, and three days after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, I loaded my 6-year-old son into the car to take him to the ER. I was convinced that he might have appendicitis. He was exhibiting all the signs—pain in his belly and on his right side. He had pain walking and couldn't hop up and down, or at least refused to try and was exaggerating his need for help in walking. He was feeling nauseated. He told me his stomach hurt at school all day, and he was falling asleep in class. I was concerned and wanted to rule everything out. I also gave him MiraLAX, in case that might solve the stomach pain.

After I started my car, I paused and took a deep breath, reflecting on the week’s stresses. In that moment, I recalled some advice on kids and stress that was shared in the early days of the pandemic: Kids exhibit stress much differently than adults do. As I turned around to look at my son (in the car still parked outside our house), I asked him: “Is there anything going on at school? Are you scared of anything?” He immediately started crying—and not from his stomach pain. He told me about two kids picking on him at school; and then he really broke down and said he doesn't want to go to school anymore because he’s scared the bad guy in Texas will come and murder him and his classmates.

Damn. Insert gut punch number one.

I did my best to reassure him that he’s safe and the bad man in Texas can’t hurt him, while still thinking in the back of my head about so much work our country needs to take to protect our kids from gun violence. I listened. I reassured. I suggested we go inside to hang out together, snuggle, and give it an hour to see if the MiraLAX might help. As soon as we got inside, it was as though his pain had vanished. He still said his stomach hurt a little, but he was back to being my happy and goofy kid. An hour later, his stomach was fine, and he hadn’t left my side once. I was grateful for his snuggles that night reflecting on the 19 families in Texas who couldn’t snuggle their own son or daughter.

When I shared this story at work, one colleague told me her middle school son doesn’t want to go to the upcoming school dance and promotion ceremony. Why? Because so many people will be in one place, and they could get shot.

Damn. Insert gut punch number two.

As parents and guardians, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, teachers and support staff, we want to protect our kids from every bad thing we can. I try to shield my kids from the tragedies in the news, but it’s not always possible—especially when I am coping with my own stress and emotions. In fact, it was advice gleaned from a spring 2020 AFT and National PTA town hall meeting on resources for parents and educators dealing with COVID-19 stress that gave me the presence of mind to pause and ask questions in a moment when my son really needed to talk. In my son’s own way, he was communicating to me that something was not right, though he didn’t have the words to express his feelings. So much of the advice in 2020 rings true today, and I encourage you to give it a listen.

Kids know when we’re stressed. And our stress can have a real impact on them. And even if it’s not our stress, the external factors of the news or an event at school impacts our kids. 

As I reread the tips from Turnaround for Children regarding the coronavirus, I realized that the entire tip sheet could have been written as a response to the tragedy in Uvalde.

Here are four of the seven tips that I found incredibly relevant when speaking with my son:  

Tip 1, for example, really spoke to the emotions I was feeling and certainly exhibiting the week of the school shooting. I know that in the days immediately following the Uvalde shooting, I was stressed and emotional, experiencing a roller coaster of emotions that I wrote about. When I talked with my son on Friday, I was calm and in a better place of mind to connect with him.

“Tip 1: Keep calm and be real: It’s not going to be easy to be cool today. Young people read adults well. They read their faces and emotions. Before you talk to a child or teenager, prepare yourself. Prepare so that you can be as calm, collected and confident as you can be. Know what you want to say. But most of all, be truthful and be authentic.”

As I read Tip 2, I replaced any reference to coronavirus with “Uvalde,” or “school shooting.” Tip 2 was precisely the tip I recalled on Friday evening and what prompted me to ask my son the important questions. 

Tip 2: Initiate a conversation about the coronavirus [Uvalde]: Don’t wait for your kids to bring the subject of the coronavirus [the school shooting] up to you. Ask what your kids are feeling about the outbreak [school shooting] right now so you can respond to their concerns and their fears truthfully and assure them that you will create ongoing opportunities to talk and connect.”

(Note: References to “Uvalde” or” school shooting” are my edits and not part of the original blog.) 

And finally, Tips 6 and 7 are crucial for checking in and staying healthy. I am implementing both and taking them to heart.

“Tip 6: Communicate often, at least once a day: Don’t be surprised if you hear the same questions, questions you’ve answered over and over again. Answer them patiently and completely.”

“Tip 7: Take care of yourself so you can care for others: Remember, you are the most important adult in their life. Taking care of yourself, including exercising, eating and sleeping well, and using reflective practices, such as meditation, will help you care for others.”

Want more of these strategies to help your kids manage stress and trauma?

Join our upcoming webinar with Turnaround for Kids

After the Shootings: How to Help Our Kids and Ourselves
June 8, 2022
6:30 p.m. EDT

View tips source

In addition to these tips, we have a wealth of resources on Share My Lesson to help you navigate trauma and mental health. I’ve found so many of the resources from our partners and educators over the years to be valuable and particularly appropriate at this moment. 

I’ll end with my current plan:

Today, I will hug my kids. I will pause from work and distractions and notifications on my phone to check in with my kids. I will also get some exercise, even if for only 20 or 30 minutes, just to clear my head, and I’ll end the day reading a beach read book. 

And tomorrow and this weekend, I will wear orange and stand in solidarity with my friends from Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence.

What is your plan?

Kelly Booz

Kelly Carmichael Booz overseesthe American Federation of Teachers (AFT) PreK-12 online resources serving 1.9 million educators on the AFT's ShareMyLesson.com, the AFT's E-Learning professional development platform, and the production and dissemination of PreK-12 publication for the AFT's 1.7 million

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