December 14th a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire. Minutes later 26 people were dead, 20 of which were children. Regardless of whether or not you are a parent, have kids in elementary school or have been a victim of gun violence this kind of trauma shakes us all to the core.
It is difficult to “make sense” of a horrible tragedy like this. We will probably never will but what we can do is focus on the acts of humanity, amazing people who responded, keep our loved ones close and take action that helps us to feel like we are making the world a little bit of a better place. There is nothing we can do to bring back those precious lives that were lost, but we can always take steps to help those that are here and to stand up for what we believe.
What You Can Do
One of the most important things you can do it turn off the television. When a horrible incident like this occurs it is out natural inclination to want to get information and to keep the television on to accomplish that. But the last thing kids need to see is images of frightened child evacuating their school and the last thing they need to hear is stories of kids who died.
Studies of middle school children, who had no direct personal exposure and were 100 miles from the Oklahoma City blast, found that those who had watched more television footage of the disaster had the most psychological symptoms of distress. It is believed by some researchers that children experience what is now known as vicarious exposure, or being traumatized from a distance, that may be as significant as actually being there at the site of the trauma. Even two years later, many of these children report bomb related symptoms that impaired their functioning at home or at school.
Children of all ages have one primary concern. That concern is safety, their own safety and the
safety of those they care about. Most children want to know that they and their parents are safe. One of the most common and difficult questions to answer is, “Will this happen at my school?” Often it is a parent’s natural inclination to say, “Of course not!” in order to calm their child and make them feel better. A more honest and empowering response is to say, “A shooting like this
almost never happens,” and then to talk about the safety precautions your child’s school takes to protect your child and the importance of taking all school safety drills seriously.
Talking About It
For older children or kids who were exposed to media about the story having discussions about what happened and how they feel about it is especially important for the healing process. But some children don’t want to talk. Young children may be too confused and some kids may not have the words for it yet. They may act it out in play, you may notice changes in their behavior or they make have nightmares. It is important that you make it clear that you are available to talk to when they are ready. Your kids may have an easier time talking about what their friends are saying than sharing their own feelings. This is still a great way for them to express their thoughts and concerns.
Children who feel the most helpless tend to have the most symptoms of post traumatic stress. According to author Daniel Goleman, “If people feel like there is something they can do in a catastrophic situation, some control they can exert, no matter how minor, they fare far better emotionally than do those who feel utterly helpless.” I believe this extends to the days, months, and even years after a trauma. Children who feel like they are able to help themselves and help others tend to recover quicker.
What can you do to help your child feel that sense of self efficacy? After 9-11 many children raised money for the Red Cross or sent letters to children in New York. Currently The United Way of Western Connecticut is accepting donations. Local residents who wish to volunteer can contact the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection .
Your Own Reactions
One final thing to keep in mind, research shows that how well a parent copes with trauma is one of the most significant predictors of how well a child recovers. According to the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence,“Parents are the central sources of safety and security for their children.” Your children look to you to model how to deal with disaster. If you are having a difficult time with your own grieving process or fears seek help. One day, your children will thank you.
Things You Can Do to Help Your Children Cope
1. Turn off the television.
2. Reassure your children about their own safety.
3. Answer questions honestly but avoid giving more information than is being asked for.
4. Be observant about behavioral changes in your child.
5. Give kids the room to play out their anxiety through the use of toys and dolls.
6. Talk with your children about their thoughts, fears, and concerns.
7. Normalize their feelings.
8. Allow children who have lost someone to grieve their loss.
9. Focus on the people who helped and acts of heroism.
10. Help kids to take actions that will create a feeling that they can impact the world.
11. Teach kids to take all school drills seriously.
12. Stick to your normal family routines which provide security for kids.
13. Take positive action as a family.
14. Get help for yourself if you are having difficulty coping.