There are no words to quite describe the tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut today. A tragedy that brought the president of the United States to tears, and to state, “our hearts are broken today.”
In the aftermath of the shooting we must handle our own reactions, which can range from sadness, to anger, to shock, to worry for our own children. It is also our task to help our kids process their reactions. Not all kids will show their reactions outwardly. It is important to ask what they have heard and how they feel.
The American School Counselor Association provides some simple guidelines for helping kids during crisis, http://www.schoolcounselor.org/content.asp?contentid=672, some of which I list below:
- Try and keep routines as normal as possible. Kids gain security from the predictability of routine, including attending school.
- Limit exposure to television and the news.
- Listen to kids’ fears and concerns.
- Reassure kids that the world is a good place to be, but that there are people who do bad things.
- Assess your own response to the crisis
The last point is very important. Be aware of how you talk about the event and cope with the tragedy. Children learn how to react to the situation by watching your responses. Limit exposure to television images and news coverage. The graphic images and repetitive scenes can be disturbing for children.
Do talk honestly about the incident, without graphic detail, and share some of your own feelings about it. This can help your child open up as well. Listen to how they feel, and try to answer the questions they might have. For children who are too young to talk or don’t feel comfortable expressing their feelings through words, don’t be afraid to use expressive techniques such as play, art, or music.
When children do express their feelings or ask questions, acknowledge the frightening parts of the event. Be honest. It is okay to say you don’t know the answer to a question. Reassure them they are loved and will be cared for. If they remain concerned, encourage them to share their concerns about school safety with school personnel also.
If your child becomes preoccupied with the event, has sleep or eating disturbances, starts having nightmares or intrusive thoughts or worries, becomes focused on death or dying, or is having difficulty going to school, please take advantage of your community resources for mental health support. This support can be sought through the school counselor, your family physician, pediatrician, or a trusted mental health professional in the community.
Smita Nagpal, Ph.D. is a Licensed Psychologist & Licensed Professional Counselor and co-owner of Still Waters Counseling, LLC. She can be reached at (734) 944-3446.