Jan 26, 2023 - Podcasts

Mass shootings are keeping parents in a cycle of fear

The U.S. has been rocked this week by multiple mass shootings. We asked you if fear of shootings is affecting your life and behavior, and we heard from one group more than any other: parents.

  • Plus, Germany and the U.S. agree to send tanks to Ukraine.

Guests: Northwestern University’s Dr. Sheehan Fisher

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Naomi Shavin, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, January 26th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: Germany and the U.S. agree to send tanks to Ukraine. But first, mass shootings are keeping parents in a cycle of fear. We hear from an expert, and from you. That’s today’s One Big Thing.

Mass shootings: Cycle of fear

NIALA: Yesterday, we talked about the cycle that we're all in with shootings and how much that's prompting fear and stress and anxiety. And we asked you to share how this is affecting you and your behavior. We heard from so many of you – especially parents. Here's what some of you had to say. Just a note that some of this is tough to listen to.

AARON: I feel sad and helpless knowing that I don't think anything's ever gonna change honestly. What makes me scared is knowing that my two-year-old son is gonna be going to school in a few years and I would just be absolutely destroyed if anything were to happen to him. I live in a small town in Idaho of about 10,000 and you might think that nothing's gonna happen here, but you look at Uvalde in a small town like that and you just never know what could happen. And so I just live in fear.

WESLEY: Hey Niala. Wesley from Texas. Gun violence has definitely changed the way we think about events that we could attend. We were very excited to go and see the new Little Mermaid movie that comes out in May, but we're afraid to go and see it in the theater. We're gonna have to watch it at home.

APRIL: Hi, my name is April. I'm 31, and I am from Tennessee. And I would say that the fear of mass shooting affected my life tremendously. I have a seven-year-old who is in first grade feel guilty every single day for sending him to public school because I don't know if he's safe, but it's like you want 'em to go and have friends that there's a constant reminder because their only store on the way to my son's school is a gun store, and I'm just hoping every single day that they're responsible and that my kid makes a home safe.

NIALA: Thanks to all of you for sharing that, and because we heard from so many parents, we wanted to dive deep today on this.

There's a lot of data that suggests this is a really common struggle for parents. An American Psychological Association survey after back to back shootings in 2019, 62% of parents said they lived in fear of their children becoming victims of a mass shooting. 71% said the possibility of mass violence was adding stress to their lives.

To understand and unpack this a little bit more. We're joined now by Dr. Sheen Fisher, he's an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. He studies parents and families and is joining us now from Chicago. Hi, Dr. Fisher.

SHEEHAN FISHER: Hi. Thank you for inviting me.

NIALA: Can I start by just asking, what's your reaction to what you just heard from our listeners?

SHEEHAN: It really is sad that parents can't just focus on their child development and trying to support their child's wellbeing. They have to actually worry about a gruesome death for their child, even though they are child's just going to school or going to hang out with friends. It makes parents really feel anxious about what is gonna happen when the child is not with them, and how much control do they have actually to support their child's wellbeing.

NIALA: And so when you think about the idea of anxiety affecting parents, how do you think that in turn affects the whole family?

SHEEHAN: Parents' anxiety we know is associated with child anxiety. So even though the child may not know why the parent's feeling anxious, the child by experiencing it can start to pick up similar symptoms. In addition, sometimes parents out of, you know, concern and well-meaning concern might start to become hypervigilant and a little bit overprotective of their child. Maybe not letting them go see friends or starting to send messaging to the child suggest that the child's in danger on a daily basis, and that also can have an impact on a child's anxiety. You know, we know that anxiety in one partner is associated with anxiety in the other so as one starts to, you know, deal with this the other parent is also more inclined to have more worry.

NIALA: So you talked about a loss of control. How would you suggest that people cope with that? How would you suggest people cope with that?

SHEEHAN: Part of it is acknowledging that it is real with lack of control, something that's important is to figure out what can you actually intervene that will support your child. So the solution likely not for every parent, but for many parents, is not to pull the kid from the school, but they can be maybe more informed about the school's policies to make sure the child is safe. Or other ways that they might feel more in control if they are getting involved with local government into trying to support laws or policies that will protect their children and have had cases where people have gone a long way to make sure that the children were at less risk of shootings by changing policies.

NIALA: So what kind of practical advice would you give parents right now to manage fear and anxiety?

SHEEHAN: Well, I think one thing can be done is to compartmentalize how they engage with this fear. I think when people watch the news, they even imagine their literal child being in that situation, which would of course be horrifying to even think that way. So, focusing on time set aside like, hey, you know what, maybe every day I might spend 15 minutes to think through, what can I do? Is there something I could do differently? Work through it, but not let that be the way you're thinking throughout the day, while you're at work, when you wake up, when you go to sleep. Otherwise, it becomes problematic for your overall functioning because it's becoming too pervasive in your day.

NIALA: We'll be back in a moment with more from Dr. Fisher.


Dealing with fear of mass shootings

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

We're talking with Northwestern University's Dr. Sheen Fisher about how mass shootings are affecting all of our behavior, especially parents.

Dr. Fisher, what can we all do to support parents, even if we're not ourselves one?

SHEEHAN: Well, I think one thing that we can do is to do more than lip service. So, when these shootings are happening, if someone doesn't have a child, they should take it just as serious about what could I do to put pressure on local government to support policies that would support families who do have children and that need, you know, that collective support to make change. Um, if you have a friend or a family member who has a child and is having this type of anxiety, then also being a listening ear. A lot of times people feel isolated about their anxiety cause they feel like they're the only one going through it. So having a support system where someone even asks you, initiates that conversation much less is open to discussing these topics when they're, the person is feeling anxious is really important.

NIALA: You've discussed how the lack of gun control legislation can exacerbate this anxiety, especially when it comes to parents and school safety. What to your mind, is the relationship between policy or a lack of policy and this fear and anxiety parents are experiencing?

SHEEHAN: Well, our policy makers' their job is to protect their citizens and so when people feel like the government isn't doing all they can to protect them, then they don't feel that they have much control because like who else is gonna be able to enforce a gun law be beyond the government. And when that's not happening, then they feel less safe because they know that there isn't much they can do to prevent the issue.

NIALA: When we think about who are the targets of these shootings, do you feel like certain populations are even more affected?

SHEEHAN: I think that when it comes to shootings in general, that shootings in certain neighborhoods are more prevalent and just don't necessarily make the news or make the news in a public outcry way. And so therefore, it's horrible when this happens to certain populations where this is getting the attention. But we have to also take notice that many children live with the idea that shootings are something that happens on a semi-regular basis within certain impoverished neighborhoods and diverse neighborhoods.

NIALA: Dr. Sheehan Fisher is an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine joining us from Chicago. Thanks, Dr. Fisher.

SHEEHAN: Thank you.

Germany and the U.S. agree to send tanks to Ukraine

NIALA: Before we go today – an update to a story we’ve been following –

JOE BIDEN: The United States will be sending 31 Abram tanks to Ukraine, the equivalent of one Ukrainian battalion.

NIALA: That is President Biden at a press conference yesterday. The U.S. will also train Ukrainian troops on how to sustain the tanks.

Germany also made a big announcement yesterday – they will send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. As well as ammunition and maintenance support.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked both nations on social media, “calling it an important step on the path to victory."

NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or you can text me at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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