School Tragedy in Connecticut – Personal Thoughts and Professional Suggestions

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Upon hearing the horrific news of a mass killing at the Sandy Hook, CT Elementary School today, like you, my heart is broken and my mind reeling.  As a mental health therapist who specializes in working with young children and families, and as a new mother, it is difficult for me to fathom the unimaginable grief of the parents of the victims, survivors, first responders, and community at large.  What would cause someone to commit such a heinous act? I am trying to wrap my mind around how this could have been prevented.  My immediate suggestion for anyone intimately or vicariously connected to the tragedy is to seek professional help – whether it be a school counselor or mental health clinic – the best way to deal with trauma is to process your feelings in a nurturing, supportive environment as soon as possible.

It feels as if we hear about random acts of mass violence in the U.S. all too frequently ever since “Columbine” has become synonymous with the infamous school shooting in 1999.  <Note: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/12/14/1337221/a-timeline-of-mass-shootings-in-the-us-since-columbine/ gives a detailed timeline of incidents since Columbine and  http://rt.com/usa/news/mass-year-people-massacre-710/ indicates that the Brady Campaign reported approximately 20 mass shootings per year with an apparent increase in 2012 so far.>  Since the mass shooting in Columbine by 2 troubled teenagers, change has occurred in terms of awareness regarding bullying.  New curriculum and policies have been established for many school districts across the nation.  We can only hope that this is yet another “wake-up” call for America to focus on the mental health needs of our children, who will one day either become healthy, high functioning adults, or god forbid one of the troubled souls who forever changes the lives of the innocent and vulnerable.

Mental health issues are treatable and early intervention can be the difference between mild concern and a psychotic break.  It is so critical to have mental health education as part of every day school curriculum – anything from building self-esteem, to social skills development, to anti-bullying.  These building blocks create a foundation and language for the community to use to help identify when a person is struggling, and DO something about it.  How often have you heard about the “red flags” or “warning signs” after one of these horrible events?   We need to work on acceptance of mental health treatment; and de-stigmatizing what it means to be psychologically healthy.

When a tragedy of this proportion hits the national news,  it is inevitable that many children will be exposed to hearing about the trauma, even though it is ideal to shield them from knowing about violence of this proportion in general.  It is important to talk to children based on their cognitive and emotional ability to process the information.  And perhaps most important is to have an outlet to process one’s own feelings of fear, grief, anxiety, etc. so that we can protect  children  from “taking on” our adult emotions.

First and foremost, if you are unsure how or what to say to your child, consult with a professional or seek out a trusted source online such as the National Institute for Mental Health (www.nimh.nih.gov),  National Association of School Psychologists (www.nasponline.org), Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com), and American Psychological Association (www.apa.org).

Here is a compilation of some tips, when talking to children, regarding tragedies including my personal opinion and information gathered from the article links below.  I hope this helps provide some immediate help to those of you looking for guidance.

 

  1.        It is ideal before school starts again on Monday, if parents can communicate with each other and their child’s school personnel regarding if and how they are going to address the shooting, so they can prepare their child in advance if needed (for example, increase in security or discussion in classrooms).
  2.        Limit exposure to media – having a parent share the news in a simple, non-alarming way is much less traumatizing than hearing a newscaster report graphic details, or seeing images of children who died, and sobbing parents, etc.  Consider the impact on yourself as an adult; and protect your children from the gory details.  Make sure to use terms they will understand, such as, “hurt” and “troubled man” vs. “murder” and “gun man.”
  3.        Children may hear scary news and then quickly forget about it; so do not feel pressured to address it right away.  However, if your child does want to talk, then do not minimize their fears or concerns.  Find out what your child knows, before assuming they know what you do, or have the same reaction as yours.  Make time to talk to your children and validate their feelings.  Be careful to not instill fear from your own anxiety, if it doesn’t exist for them.  Children will feed off of your energy; so do your best to be calm and composed and make sure to seek your own support.
  4.        Stick to routine and keep things as normal as possible – family activities, sending children to school, etc.  This will help them feel safe with their regular structure, but also be flexible, if they are needing extra comfort or re-assurance.  It’s a good idea to talk about how you and other adults keep them safe, and how they are safe in their school/community, if this comes up as a concern.
  5.        Do something concrete and tangible so children feel like they are “helping.” This can create purpose and an outlet for children and adults.  For example, lighting a candle, saying a prayer, sending a card or letter to the families affected, etc.
  6.       Watch for warning signs that your child may need additional help: trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work, changes in appetite, fear of going to school or new places.  Fixation on the shooting and drawing or talking about it beyond a few weeks after the event may indicate the need for professional support as well.

Links to articles regarding tips for parents and other caregivers on how to help children cope with tragedy:

 A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope

Tips for Parents and Teachers

http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/terror_general.aspx

 

Helping Children Cope with Tragedy-related anxiety:

http://www.nmha.org/go/information/get-info/coping-with-disaster/helping-children-handle-disaster-related-anxiety

 

http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/aftermath.aspx

http://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201212/making-sense-senseless-killing

http://www.babycenter.com/0_how-to-talk-to-your-child-about-violent-events-in-the-news_3657112.bc?showAll=true

 

If you are not sure your child is having a reaction to either witnessing or hearing about a trauma:

http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/helping-children-and-adolescents-cope-with-violence-and-disasters-parents/how-children-react-to-trauma.shtml

 

 

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