Moving Forward: How Should Parents Interact With Their Students Over Break?

November 17, 2022 By Renee Grutzik, Renee Grutzik,

This weekend, thousands of University of Virginia students will start heading home for Thanksgiving break. It will be the first break since a gunman killed three UVA football players on Grounds and wounded two other students, a horrific crime that led to a 12-hour lockdown, fear and anxiety.

When students arrive home, how should parents check on them to see if they’re OK? UVA Today asked Robert Emery, professor of psychology; and Nicole Ruzek, a clinical psychologist and director of Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, for their best advice to parents.

Q. What might grief look like for my child after something like Sunday’s tragedy?

EMERY: There is no one “right” way to grieve. We often are sad, tearful, and express regret, feelings of unfairness, magical wishes to change what cannot be changed. Many of us, including me, also are angry – at the perpetrator, at God, at the world. When we reminisce, we might laugh as well as cry, both to relieve tension and in recalling happier times. All of this emotion is real, human, and should not be overanalyzed – in others or in ourselves.

RUZEK: The most important thing to recognize is that this type of event will bring up a range of reactions and responses. And there is not a typical or normal way to respond to something like this. And this means that there are multiple layers to work through both collectively and individually. I’ve been talking to people about their exposure, exposure to the actual violence, or hearing about the violence, that triggers feelings of shock, fear, panic. There’s the devastating and heartbreaking loss of peers who are so young and full of promise and potential, which brings up a lot of sadness, anger and grief. Then there’s the general loss of feelings of safety and stability that come with traumatic events. [It is] somewhat expected for students to be feeling on edge or just generally going into spaces and wondering if they’re going to be safe. What they’re experiencing is normal.

Q. When is the right time to talk to my child about what happened? When should I push and when should I back off?

EMERY: UVA students are our children, but they are not children. These young people are adults and don’t need or want to be overprotected. So, try talking, and you’ll see if your child is ready to talk. Give them space and see if they fill it. Don’t push. Don’t back off. Be real. Be open. The media often tells us to act like therapists at times like this. But as a psychologist with over 40 years of experience as a therapist, professor, and parent, I can say that my kids – and most of your kids – don’t want or need adults pretending to be therapists. Just be yourself. You, and I, are not perfect. But it’s far better to be our flawed selves than a phony.

RUZEK: I would say don’t wait. Talk to them right away. Ask them how they’re doing and what they need. Allow them to talk if that’s what they need. If they’re not ready, honor that and let them know that you’re there for them whenever they are ready. I also think it’s important to keep in mind that parents and caregivers are also having their own set of reactions. And so many were terrified that night and are likely still quite worried about their students and what’s happening at the University. During this time, I’d also say, don’t push them, but rather remind them that you love them. Remind them that you’re there and available. Remind them that you care about how they’re doing and what they’re feeling right now.

Q. What can I do to be supportive of my child during these difficult times?

EMERY: Be understanding, of course, but also be honest. For my part, I am angry as well as sad. I’ll never know the grief of those who lost a loved one in this tragedy, and I don’t pretend to. But I hate the loss of those beautiful lives. I hate the pain that will never heal among their loved ones. I hate the senseless violence, the violation, the fear that I felt when desperately trying to make sure my son was safe. I don’t want to give an ounce of power to the perpetrator of these acts or of any of the far-too-common acts of senseless violence in our world today. I refuse to be afraid. I refuse to be mistrustful. I invite my children, your children, and you. Join me in outrage, in the refusal to bend. Not one ounce of fear, divisiveness, or mistrust. That’s how we win, and craziness loses. UVA Strong.

RUZEK: Be patient and understand that this is a long and complicated process of healing. Make sure to check in with them every so often. They may or may not want to talk right away. But, you know, just check in occasionally. Ask “How are you?” or “Is there anything you need?” or “Do you feel like talking right now?” Try not to compare their experiences to other people. You know, some students have a history of interpersonal violence, trauma, or loss. Those traumas and losses may be getting retriggered. And that’s going to be potentially very different from someone who’s never experienced loss or trauma in their life.

Q. What kinds of warning signs should I be looking out for in my child over break?

EMERY: Look for all the usual, sad and scary warning signs of depression, irrational anger, or irrational anxiety. But I’d also urge us to look for warning signs of retreat too. Our world can be frightening, challenging, in need of change. I want our children to reform it, not run from it. I hope you do too.

RUZEK: I think for at least the rest of this academic year if they’re isolated from peers too much and not wanting to engage at all with anybody for an extended period of time. Isolation is not helpful for human beings, but particularly, during a time when a lot of feelings are coming up. If they’re sleeping too much, or not enough, not eating at all, or losing a lot of weight in a short period of time or engaging in unhealthy coping through substances. If they’re frequently zoning out and not able to focus at all on anything other than the events. That might be a sign of dissociation or realization. [These are] definitely [signs] to look out for.

 Q. How do I continue to support my child when they return to the University?

EMERY: By expecting them to return to normal, and by returning to normal yourself. We don’t want violence to redefine us. We want to beat those who violate our world, to reduce their acts by giving them no power over us. Our pain is very real and will live with us. Again, I can’t even begin to understand the agony of those who lost a loved one. But I think we best honor their profound loss not only by remembering but also by moving forward, becoming stronger, and becoming more tightly connected.

RUZEK: Again, checking in every so often, continuing to validate feelings and do all the things I mentioned. I think it’s important every so often just to send a loving text, you know, like “Thinking about you,” or “I love you” or “Hope you’re doing OK.” Also, letting them know about the resources at the University because there are a ton here.

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