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Dealing with a trauma like the school shooting in Connecticut is obviously not an easy thing. Even the most experienced mental health professionals are challenged to offer explanations of how and why something so horrific and incomprehensible could take place. Yet while many aspects of this tragedy will continue to defy explanation, there is information available that can help all members of the competent school community – administrators, faculty and staff, parents, and students – manage their responses. When the adults in the school community feel better equipped to handle their own reactions, they feel more prepared to deal with the reactions of the children on their care.

Here are a few suggestions for the adults and parents in the school community adapted from the Lifelines Postvention Manual (Hazelden Publications, 2009).

  • You’ve got to begin by addressing your own reactions first. As the disaster was initially unfolding, you probably found yourself experiencing a sense of disbelief and horror. As you’ve had time to absorb the details, those feelings may have evolved to include both grief and worry about the randomness of senseless violence. Traumatic events can create a lingering atmosphere of confusion and danger and recognizing this fact is the first step in dealing with it. It’s important to remind yourself that these types of events are both rare and unusual; although they do happen; you need to tell yourself, maybe frequently, that they are not the norm and that you will do your best as an adult to protect the children in your care.
  • You already know that you want to limit the exposure of children to media coverage of the event. What you may forget is that you may need to limit your own intake of news about the disaster as well if you find it upsetting. If you feel more control when you are aware of each emerging detail, however, pursue information about the event. Keep in mind, though, that news coverage tends to focus on engaging viewers at an emotional level, so facts will generally be interspersed with heart-rending personal stories or accounts. This event in particular will contain an immeasurable about of sadness, so protect yourself from too much exposure.  And, just as you may need to remind children that they can’t believe everything they see or hear, remind yourself about the potential inaccuracy of stories that come from even reputable sources.
  • Focus on healing and helping. In every trauma, there are examples of courage and heroism in the way that people directly affected by the trauma respond. These stories provide balance to the tragedy and are often good examples of the resiliency of the human spirit. If it would help you feel less helpless, personally consider ways to help those affected by the event. Active involvement counteracts some of the helplessness that is common to either natural or provoked disasters.
  • Know where to go for help, both for yourself and for your children and students. In-school resources are often the best referral source for students and may also be available for the faculty. Community agencies may offer trauma-related support services and are usually staffed with professionals who have had training in disaster response and recovery.
  • Remember that a trauma like this is not simply an “event” with a discrete beginning and end, but rather a “process” that will continue and evolve over time. Be aware of children who seem to be more affected by the event and monitor their performance and behavior for signs of change. Be alert to those occasions when the intensity of trauma-related emotions might escalate. These will include coverage of the funerals, the anniversary of the event, news stories that call attention to the event, or the unfortunate occurrence of similar events, even if they do not take place in school settings. Remind yourself that the re-emergence of strong feelings does not mean that healing or adjustment hasn’t taken place. It’s simply a reflection of the intensity of the event and how profoundly you were affected by it. These intense feelings often diminish within a short period of time, but if they do persist, talk with someone about your reactions.
  • Recognize that your reactions to this event may be mixed with personal reactions to difficult events in your own life, even if the events are themselves very dissimilar.
  • When you think about helping the children in your care deal with their reactions to this event, remember that children view traumatic events differently than adults. Unless they are personally touched by the event, they might not even react at all. Traumatic events that take place in different states or communities may seem worlds apart. Even events in their hometown may feel distant unless someone whom the children know is personally involved. As grown-ups we may feel this reflects insensitivity on the part of our children or students when it is simply a developmental reality. There may be many children who have no need to know about or talk about what happened.
  • It can help to remember that the way children view the passage of time helps them recover from traumas more quickly than adults. Because children tend to focus on the immediate present rather than on the past or future, they are able to put all events, even traumatic ones, behind them in what can seem like a short period of time. This fact can change if the child is personally impacted. In that situation, reminders of the trauma are ever-present and keep the event a part of the child’s current reality.
  • As you probably know, children can only tolerate intense feelings for a short period of time. That’s one of the reasons that young children in particular appear to under-react to trauma and death. They may experience an emotion deeply, and then unconsciously back away from the feeling until they are prepared to deal with the intensity of the emotion. What may look like avoidance and denial to adults is actually a very effective coping strategy. Savvy adults will take advantage of the opportunities to talk about the trauma at the times when children seem ready to talk about them.
  • The way in which young children respond to a traumatic event can often be predicted by the reactions of the adults to whom the children are close. For example, children will be more alarmed if the adults in their lives seem upset and emotional, and less affected if the adults react in calm, reassuring ways.
  • For both adults and children, recovery from trauma means putting the experience behind and getting back to normal life. “Normal life” for children consists of going to school, playing, and other everyday activities. Anything adults can do to create this safe and predictable environment will help. This is another example of how the structure and predictability of the school setting can create an island of stability for children during a crisis. The consistency of the rules and expectations of the school setting provide a sense of control and order, particularly when events in the environment seem out of control. At home, maintaining routine and schedule, and providing reassurance about the rarity of traumatic events in response to children’s concerns are simple yet effective ways to assist in getting back to normal.

SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline Offers Immediate Crisis Counseling

Call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746

Sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Helpline immediately connects callers to trained and caring professionals from the closest crisis counseling center in the nationwide network of centers. Helpline staff will provide confidential counseling, referrals, and other needed support services.

The Disaster Distress Helpline is a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week national hotline dedicated to providing disaster crisis counseling. The toll-free Helpline is confidential and multilingual, and available for those who are experiencing psychological distress as a result of natural or man-made disasters, incidents of mass violence, or any other tragedy affecting America’s communities.

Our texting service also is available to Spanish speakers. Text “Hablanos” to 66746 for 24/7 emotional support.

TTY for Deaf/Hearing Impaired: 1-800-846-8517

The Helpline also can be accessed online at http://disasterdistress.samhsa.gov/

Additional Resources

PBS – Parents on talking to children about news: Talking with Kids about news

PBS – Parents and Mister Rogers on talking to kids about scary news: Helping Children with Scary News

Coping with a School Shooting (from NAEYS’s home page):http://www.naeyc.org/content/coping-school-shooting

Our hearts go out to the family members and others affected by the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. We’ve compiled these online resources for parents, teachers, and others working with young children about coping with violence and talking to young children about tragedies they learn about in the media.

Coping with Violence and Traumatic Events: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)http://www.samhsa.gov/trauma

National Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry – Coping with tragic events
In hopes of helping families cope with such tragic events AACAP created a collection of resources including

The National Association of School Psychologists – Resources to cope with violence
Resources on talking to children about violence, tips for parents, teachers, and school administrators, dealing with a death in a school and more. The Association has listed some of these key resources on their home page for quick access.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network – Tips for talking to children about the shooting
Resources on talking to children about the recent shooting, information about the shooting’s psychological impact, tips for parents on media coverage – includes tips specific for preschool-aged children.

The National Education Association – School crisis guide
The National Education Association (NEA) and the National Education Association Health Information Network (NEA HIN) developed this easy-to-use crisis guide with essential, to-the-point advice for schools and districts.

American Academy of Pediatrics – Talking with children
Resources to help parents talk to children about violence and disasters.

Child Care Aware – Helping families and children cope
In the wake of any kind of emergency or disaster – large or small – children and adults may feel anxious about their own safety and security. Child Care Aware offers resources for Parents, Caregivers, School Professionals and more.

American Psychological Association – Helping children manage distress
As a parent, you may be struggling with how to talk with your children about a shooting rampage. It is important to remember that children look to their parents to make them feel safe.

Subtitled “A Guide for Parents and Educators,” this printable PDF contains concise tips for talking to children after traumatic events as well as resource links when more active intervention may be required.

Helping Children Cope with Tragedy-related Anxiety
This web page, from Mental Health America (formerly known as the National Mental Health Association), offers tips for parents in helping preschool-age children, as well as grade school-age children and adolescents, with tragedy-related anxiety.

After the Crisis: Using Storybooks to Help Children Cope
Authors Cathy Grace and Elizabeth Shores offer literature-based activities to help children who have been through a trauma. With activities and exercises that can be used in conjunction with 50 children’s books, the discussion starters and writing and art activities in After the Crisis can be used by teachers to promote children’s ability to cope and heal.

Media Coverage of Traumatic Events
This web page discusses research findings that link watching media coverage of traumatic events with stress. The article gives viewing recommendations and other advice for parents of young children.

Prepared by Maureen Underwood, LCSW