After a tragic event like the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, it is only natural for us to feel a mixture of grief and anxiety; we are saddened by the loss of so many young lives and concerned for the safety of our children and community. As parents, family members and teachers, we are responsible for providing emotional support to our children while taking care of our own emotional wellbeing. We need to make ourselves available, as our children need our help during this difficult time.
A child’s adjustment after a traumatic event can be affected by many factors including the child’s temperament, pre-existing risk factors (e.g., emotional, learning and social difficulties), availability of family and additional social supports and the extent to which the event directly affects the child’s daily life 1. While children who are more directly impacted by an event may experience higher levels of distress, it is important to remember that children who are exposed to tragic events through the media may also experience reactions to stress that need our attention.
Research has shown that parental support is a vital factor in protecting children who are exposed to community violence or stressful events 2. The manner in which we approach and respond to a stressful situation can have a profound impact on how children manage. Some children will experience short-term difficulties as a result of this event, while for others the impact may be long-lasting. While we cannot change what has happened, we can offer some suggestions that you may find helpful while you assist your child or student in the aftermath of last Friday’s tragedy.
Create an atmosphere where kids can ask questions and express their feelings – Identify ways in which children can express their feelings including writing them down in a journal or through art. Some children may just need a space where others will listen. Remember that children may need time to process and understand what has happened, so be available to listen and answer questions as they arise. In schools, we encourage teachers and counselors to provide students with the opportunity to discuss their feelings in a familiar group setting 3,4.
Model appropriate coping – Children use their parents and other adults in their lives as models for how to process what is going on. Acknowledge that many people may be feeling sad or angry. Express your own feelings in a calm and constructive way to avoid overwhelming your child.
Keep it developmentally appropriate – When explaining what has happened during a traumatic event, be honest but also keep in mind the child’s age and developmental level.
Emphasize safety – Remind children that traumatic events are fairly rare and that there are several supportive adults and safety measures in place to protect them.
Create closure – Offer an opportunity for children to commemorate those affected by the tragedy by planting a tree, releasing balloons, or raising money for the cause. Children learn that helping others can be a positive and healthy way to respond to trauma and anxiety.
When to seek professional help – If you notice that your child’s is having difficulty engaging in activities of daily living that last longer than a few weeks you may want to seek professional help. Signs to look for include difficulty maintaining a regular eating and sleeping schedule, social isolation, excessive worrying, irritability, sad mood and somatic complaints3,4.
For those who need additional help – There are a number of evidence-based treatments that have been shown to be effective in helping children cope with anxiety and symptoms related to exposure to traumatic events. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for children involves the family in behavioral intervention, goal-setting, and reinforcement strategies. Psychologists help children identify and change their thinking, behavior and emotional responses to better cope with their difficulties. Exposure therapy is also designed to help children gradually and on their own pace confront the objects, memories, locations, or situations that they find especially fearful and anxiety provoking and by doing so reducing their anxiety over time.
If you are concerned about your child or student, please do not hesitate to reach out to Sunfield Center at 734-222-9277.
1 Guidelines for Helping Children Affected by Disasters and Trauma – Child Study Center
2. Ozer, E.J. & Weinstein, R.S. (2004). Urban adolescents’ exposure to community violence: The role of support, school safety, and social constraints in a school-based sample of boys and girls
3. Helping Young Children Cope with Trauma – American Red Cross
4. Coping with a Traumatic Event – CDC
“What if? Imagine if everyone could commit to doing one act of kindness
for every one of those children killed in Newtown.” Ann Curry