Saturday, December 15, 2012

Aftermath of School Shooting: How to help our kids

I want to start a conversation about caring for ourselves and our children in the aftermath of the current shooting violence on Friday. As some of you might know I am a psychotherapist, and I once treated mostly children. I want to just share some of what I know from working with traumatized children, from being an anti violence educator for over 15 years and from my experiences when I was working with children, schools and families in Washington DC area  following the events of 911. I was at a trauma non profit at the time of 911.

I know the shooting in Connecticut is not the same as a national tragedy like 911. But there are lot of things we learned from that and other experiences of social violence and about how to help children cope, and how to cope as parents so that we can be the most accessible to our kids. I am focusing mainly in this post on the smallest children, toddlers to first graders and the issue of restricting information flow as much as possible and the value of being able to respond as need arises with as much peace and calm as possible.

That said, we are all going to have different emotional responses based on who we are, our family dynamics, the age of our children,  and our life experiences. I know some parents may be frightened about leaving their children at school. Some parents may feel quite secure with their children at school. And most of us will have conflicting feelings. Whatever your emotions, to the extent we manage ourselves and limit anxiety producing information getting through to our children, the better we all will be.

One of the first things we said to families after 911 was to TURN OFF THE TV (when our children are awake or near) and to be mindful of our own behaviors such as telephone conversations etc. As we all know our children are master detectives of our feelings and what we are up to and they hear all! So be mindful to where you are doing your “processing” and know that they should not hear your raw emotions or your telephone calls etc.  

Dr. Andrew J. Gerber, a child psychiatrist at Columbia, said that parents should come to terms with their own feelings about the massacre before talking to a child. They should "essentially metabolize the awfulness of the event so that what they pass on when they have a discussion with their children conveys a certain amount of thoughtfulness and understanding, rather than raw trauma,"…

In short, the less our small children know the better.   Ideally kindergarten and first graders should not be informed about this event at all. Our children need us to project a sense of calm And for small children, they need to be protected from the information as much as possible. Their little emotional selves are just not prepared to process such unimaginable and frightening data and no good comes from exposing them unnecessarily.

Of course many little ones have older siblings and other family members that may “leak” information about the tragedy. And the information is bombarding us everywhere. So if your child hears about the shooting or has already been exposed to some of the details, you’ll want to think about how to respond. Most experts agree to wait until they bring it up with you. And limit the details to what they already have heard. So when and if they do ask a question or otherwise project a fear, assess how much they have heard before you respond. Less is more. You can then validate their feelings AND assure them that they are safe. Something along the lines of, “I can see you are scared. You can talk to me about anything. I know it is scary when you hear of something you don’t understand or something where someone was hurt. “   And then “You have grown ups around you who love you and are making sure you are safe.”

This event is horrible. It reminds us of our deepest fears and that we live in an unpredictable world. This is true everywhere in the world. As we know many families must deal with the real possibility of violence befalling their children or their homes every day. As frequent as it seems that shootings in school have been, and there have been way too many, our communities remain relatively safe from these isolated events.  

But we cannot make our children’s world perfectly safe;  we can however  protect their innocence by assuring them that they are being protected by loving adults who will care for them. One way to care for them is to be captain of the ship regarding exposure to media.  We cannot indulge in random access to our car radio or TV left on as we have no knowledge of what material might pop up or how an issue will be framed.  We deal with this differently according to our children’s ages. Little ones need as much shielding as we can give. This is not the time to “toughen them up”. It is a time to draw near and create familiar safety. Resilience is built through loving and gentle closeness.

As parents we can get help for ourselves if our fears make it hard for us to project a secure, steady calm for them. They need to know we are there for them. They can ask questions and they can be silent. We will keep them close but not intrude and we will reassure them that we are doing all we can do together as a community to keep them safe. They are loved. Love heals.

More to come on the specific signs that a child may be distressed.
Also more about why. Why does this happen? Who can do these horrific things and why are they occurring

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