What To Tell My Teenager About Uvalde …
Just weeks after a shooting had occurred at his own school.
On a Tuesday evening in May, my 14-year-old son came to find me. He looked pale. He said he’d been reading about the massacre at a school in Uvalde, Texas. I swallowed hard, gulping down the foolish hope that he’d somehow miss the carnage. I'd been struggling over whether to mention the shooting. If he hadn’t heard about it, I didn’t see any advantage in telling him.
You see, we were still reeling from our own trauma, and I didn’t know how much more either of us could take. Thirty-two days earlier, a sniper attacked my son’s high school, firing nearly 300 bullets from an automatic weapon.
My son wasn’t at school that day — he was home with COVID — but his friends and teachers were there. He and I experienced the six hours of lockdown through a split screen of frantic texts from people sheltering in the school, alongside simultaneous news coverage. The shooter shattered windows, spraying glass on dozens huddled on the floor. By the end of his rampage, he’d shot one student and three adults. The administration handled the coming weeks with boundless sensitivity and generosity. Rather than returning to old routines as if nothing had happened, they created space for discussion, healing and community. I watched my son carefully. He was eating and sleeping normally, and joining me for dinner. Overall, I thought he seemed OK.
Facing him in my living room, I swiftly reviewed my changing status in his life. When he was a child, I planned his weekends, filling them with playdates at our house or with families I knew. Now, he gets himself to and from a weekend job at a local bistro. At this point, he interacts with many other adults: his teachers, coworkers, and customers at the restaurant. The filters on his devices only do so much; I can’t control what he watches or reads on his own or with friends. My role as his informational gatekeeper, as his primary source of wisdom and advice, is over.
I said I did know about the shooting and asked what he thought. I expected him to talk about the stress of feeling unsafe in school, or the screaming injustice of attacking children. I was wrong.
“I think we need to raise the minimum age for gun purchases,” he said. “We have to reinstate the assault weapons ban. Background checks are a joke. We need to fix that. And if certain members of Congress are going to drop all these killings on mental health problems, we better step our health care system the f*** up.” He folded his arms and looked at me.
I’d assumed he wanted maternal reassurance. I mean, when he was young and afraid the dark, I knew how to comfort him. “Mommy will keep you safe.” “The grownups will fix this.” “You’ll be OK. I promise.” My words worked, in large part because they were true. I could get him a nightlight or leave his bedroom door open, so he could see the hallway light.
But he’s too old to buy my platitudes, and too jaded to miss the aspirational lilt in my tone. The stakes — his emotional health — were too high for me to pretend otherwise.
I felt utterly helpless as I mentally ransacked my parental toolkit. Could I say I’ll keep him safe?
No. If he or I had any lingering illusions of my omnipotence, a 23-year-old gunman recently blew those away.
How about assuring him that the grownups will fix this?
Ha. Unlikely. His comments made clear his views on the legislative impotence of Congress.
The only idea I had left was to find a way to show him that he, himself, is OK. Maybe I had to let him know that I was?
That was it. I could stay calm. I could model stability. I would create a space for him to feel normal. I would stand solid amid the maelstrom that could easily sweep him away. I straightened, thinking I had something to offer him after all.
Spurred by his work at the bistro, my son has taken an interest in cooking. So, I told him I was ready to talk about gun rights, if that’s what he wanted to do. “But Uvalde is pretty intense,” I said, “especially after what happened here. Maybe we need a bit of a breather? Totally up to you.”
“Want to bake something?” I asked.
He nodded again, adding a very small smile. He said he wanted to choose a complicated recipe.
I understood. He wanted to force himself out of his own thoughts, and a complex task might just do the trick. We decided to attempt eclairs, which involved multiple components, all of which were new to both of us. I zipped off to the supermarket.
A half-hour later, we were baking. Side by side, we lost ourselves in measuring, pouring and stirring. Other than talking through who should handle which next step, we didn’t talk much. The only past we discussed was confirming when I’d turned on the oven; the only future, how long our dough had to bake.
Together, we piped whipped cream into crusty pastries, then ladled melted chocolate along their tops. The whole time we worked, we stayed in the present. And in those moments, at least, life was again sweet.
This month AARP is launching an initiative, “Our Kids in Crisis,” with a special report in AARP Bulletin, stories throughout aarp.org, The Ethel, The Girlfriend, Sisters From AARP, and The Arrow e-newsletters. Plus, there's a virtual summit with experts and teens on September 20. For more stories, advice and insights, and to register for this important informational event, please join us at aarp.org/teensincrisis.