It will be important to remember that children, similar to adults, will show reactions in a variety of ways. Children at different developmental levels respond differently to trauma. Even so, children at similar developmental levels can react differently to the same event, and a child's response may change over time. Typical reactions can include a range of emotions, physical complaints, socialization changes, and behavior challenges. It can be helpful to consider your child's personality, typical ways of coping with difficult situations, and other situations that are also going on in his or her daily life to help you understand what they are experiencing.
Talk To Others:
During times of distress it is often helpful to reach out to loved ones for support. You may find support through talking with your family, friends, religious leaders, counselors, and neighbors. Reminding ourselves of our sense of community can have an uplifting effect. The Disaster Distress Helpline 1-800-985-5990 is also available 24 hours-a-day, seven-days-a week, and can provide immediate confidential, multilingual, counseling to anyone who is experiencing psychological distress as a result of incidents of violence or tragedy.
Talk to Your Children:
Children often take their cues from the adults around them regarding how to respond in stressful and uncertain situations. It will be important to answer your children's questions about the events at Sandy Hook Elementary in honest but developmentally appropriate ways. Do not dwell on frightening details but also take care not to dismiss or minimize your children's questions. Follow their lead to help you gauge how much and what types of information they are seeking.
Allow Your Children to Talk it Through:
We all have ongoing dialogue within our mind and children often talk things through 'out loud' to help them process situations. It can be very helpful to provide children with opportunities to talk about what they are seeing on television and to ask questions. Do not worry if you cannot answer all of their questions or if you find yourself at a loss for words at times. Reassuring your children that their questions are important, that you can continue to discuss their thoughts and opinions, that you can work together to find answers to their questions, and that some questions are very difficult to definitively answer are all important during this process. You may also find it helpful to monitor your children's television watching and to limit exposure to especially graphic, sensational, or troubling scenes. Remember that attempts to completely shield your child from exposure to the information may be unsuccessful at best. Further, you may also find that your child may be more troubled by 'accidentally' hearing the information in-passing when he or she was unprepared for the experience. A more helpful approach may be to help children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and openly talking with them about their fears.
Take Care of Yourself:
Initially, I had this section on self-care placed earlier in this piece. However, I am well aware that as parents we easily tend to overlook our own self-care in deference to the care of our children. For that reason I decided to place this section at the end in hopes that you will not gloss over this very important area. It will be important to acknowledge that you, too, may have reactions associated with the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, and to take steps to promote your own healing. An overly intense display of emotion can be frightening to children; however, it is very appropriate for adults to show emotion in front of their children even if that includes some tearfulness. An insightful comment can help your child understand that all of our feelings are ok and that expressing them in appropriate ways is healthy. Something that you have likely heard me encourage you to do at one point or another and I believe it is relevant to repeat here is to "Take time to take care of yourself so that you can take care of your children." You have also heard me say that you can call me if you need to and that offer still stands.
Should you have an interest, here are some links to resources on helping kids cope with tragedy/violence/trauma:
The Handbook of Frequently Asked Questions Following Traumatic Events:Violence, Disasters, or Terrorism
Disaster Distress Helpline - National Center
NASP Resources: Coping with Crisis-Helping Children With Special Needs
SAMHSA - Tips for Talking to Children and Youth After Traumatic Events
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Head Start Bulletin: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder In Children (Page 37)
Wishing you comfort and peace.
J. Oni Dakhari, PsyD
NJ #4481 DE# 736
Dakhari Psychological Services, LLC
128 Bortons Landing Rd; Suite 2
Moorestown, NJ 08057