When reeling in the aftermath of the Connecticut school shooting, many children are easily overwhelmed with fear. In response to a crisis some children react with severe emotional responses — fear, grief, post-traumatic stress. Moreover, such experiences and other events that threaten a child’s sense of worth and well-being can produce intense personal distress.
Until things calm down after yesterdays school shooting, it will be normal for your child to show signs of worry and fear. They may have trouble eating or sleeping.
Two weeks from now, if your child still isn’t eating or sleeping normally, or shows other warning signs such as extreme irritability, melancholy, lethargy and reluctance toward or fear of activities he or she once enjoyed, call your pediatrician or seek counseling for your child.
CREATE A SENSE OF SAFETY
Provide Caring and Support – Listen to your child’s concerns and answer their questions in direct, factual, age-appropriate ways. (Be careful of giving TOO MUCH information, especially with younger children.)
Children around 5 and younger don’t need to know. Very young children will only recently have mastered the skills of walking and talking, and they may not be able to express their anxieties and fears. Although you may think they are too young to understand what is happening, even very young children can absorb frightening events from the news or from conversations they overhear. Don’t let them watch news stories while they’re in the room. Wait for them to ask about what happened. If they don’t ask, continue business as usual.
Older children are likely to ask questions. You can initiate a conversation by saying, “I know you’re hearing and seeing a lot about what happened at the school in Connecticut. How does this make you feel?” Or select pictures in a book or ask the children to draw pictures to express feelings. Then talk about the pictures. Take the lead from the child as to how much they need to talk about and know about the situation. Keep answers to questions simple, giving only what is needed.
Listen to comments of children as they play. Are there clues here that need further conversation?
When there is a situation outside of the home that is frightening, limit the amount of news your children watch or listen to. You don’t need to hide what’s happening in the world from your children, but neither do they have to be exposed to constant stories that fuel their fears. Children may have trouble distinguishing between TV shows that blow up buildings, and the factual news reports of a tragic event. Explain, “Yes, this really did happen. It is a sad time, but we will come through it.”
Realize that extra stresses may heighten normal daily stresses. Your children might normally be able to handle a failed test or teasing, but be understanding that they may respond with anger or bad behavior to stress that normally wouldn’t rattle them. Reassure them that you just expect them to do their best.
Two main questions children are likely to think about, whether they actually ask them or not, are: “Could this happen to me or to someone I love?” Remember that a young child cannot understand, “We just have to trust in God.” They trust in parents, and parents are supposed to protect them. So, while the answers are never easy, again try to keep them simple. “We don’t expect this to ever happen to you or anyone you love. You are always loved and have a loving circle of family and friends.” People sometimes choose to do bad things.”
Be careful what you say in front of children. Keep your emotions in check. If we are lamenting the state of the world and saying things like “I’m afraid to go anywhere anymore,” children will start to feel the world is indeed a scary place.
Expressing Feelings – Provide opportunities for your child to express their feelings. Use toys, puppets, books, music, water play, play dough, painting, and puzzles (creating order out of chaos). Let your child know that you have some of the same feelings they have. Be honest about your feelings, but temper them. Encourage your child to communicate their thoughts and feelings. But balance is again the key: Don’t let the talk escalate and overwhelm children.
Provide Opportunities for Meaningful Participation – Help your child come up with ways they can address the crisis themselves: i.e., raising money, sending cards and letters, forming a Peace Club. Participation gives children a sense of purpose and competence in their own lives and a belief that they can make a positive impact on their own lives and influence and change the lives of others – their peers, family and community.
Increase Prosocial Bonding – Provide your child with positive activities to do together that give them a sense of purpose and mastery in the situation. Through mastery – a child develops self-efficacy by mastering their environment and learning that what he/she does makes a difference in the world.
Set Clear, Consistent Boundaries – Strike a balance between addressing concerns and getting back to a normal schedule. Boundaries are important to children because they give clear messages about what’s expected. Children need the safety of familiar rules and routines.
Set and Communicate High Expectations – Express your certainty that your child can cope with the situation and faith in their strength and inner resources. When children have clear, consistent boundaries and high expectations, the are more likely they are to grow up healthy, because boundaries and expectations provide children with the support they need.
CHILDREN REACT DIFFERENTLY AT DIFFERENT AGES
In a crisis, children have similar feelings to adults. They often show their feelings in actions rather than words.
1–4 years: Thumb-sucking, bedwetting, fear of the dark, clinging to parents, nightmares, not sleeping or broken sleep, loss of bladder or bowel control, speech or feeding problems, fear of being left alone, irritable, fretful
5–10 years: Aggression, confusion, competing for attention, avoiding school, nightmares, poor concentration, tummy aches, headaches, fear of the dark, fear of being hurt or left alone
11–13 years: Changes in appetite, broken sleep, antisocial behavior, school problems, anxiety, aches and pains, skin problems, fear of losing friends and family, acting as if it hasn’t happened.
14–18 years: Physical problems (rashes, bowel problems, asthma attacks, headaches), changes in appetite and sleep, lack of interest in things they usually enjoy, lack of energy, antisocial behavior, poor concentration, guilt. Some of these are part of the ups and downs of this age too.
For more information on crisis response and counseling, check out these resources:
How parents can help children through traumatic events
Roles Play Therapist plays Post-Disaster Engagement and Empowerment of Survivor
The Teachers Role When Tragedy Strikes
Here are resources that I find helpful for talking to children about violence and death:
The American Academy of Pediatrics on School Shootings
University of Minnesota on Talking to Kids About Violence Against Kids
National Association of School Psychologists on Talking to Children About Violence
What I consider to be one of the best articles on talking to children about death (by Hospice)
Explaining the news to our kids from Common Sense Media.
If you would like Dr. Kay Trotter to come talk to your group you can contact her at: Kay@KayTrotter.com, 214-499-0396, or visit her web site http://www.KayTrotter.com.
Dr Trotter also post regularly in her FaceBook fan page http://www.facebook.com/DrKaySudekumTrotter.