Words cannot express the sorrow I feel for the victims and families of the Sandy Hook shooting. As a mental health professional I have experienced the reaction to the tragedy through clients, colleges and friends of the victims. Personally, I have had to help my own children deal with the news and the resulting anxiety. We have also felt the pain of the loss of one of the little girls, Jess a sweet 6 year old who we saw just last weekend at the barn where we ride. Although I have no answer to why something could happen to such innocent children, I do have some suggestions based on my personal and professional experience that might help you cope. I hope they help bring you some comfort.
- Shut off the T.V, radio, and hide the newspapers. As adults we may be able to handle watching the news and reading about the shooting. Our children can only become fearful and anxious. My 9 year old was at one of the barns we ride at yesterday and the radio had the news reports on. She screamed “can someone shut that off! I am tired of hearing about it!” I was so proud of her for taking care of herself and not worrying about what others would think about her. My other daughter who is 14 wanted to sit and listen to the radio report in the car. I let her listen to a little and then shut it off. She insisted she could handle the news. I didn’t want to take the chance. As the parent I need to decide what is appropriate and not. Also, be careful when talking to your partner or adult friends about the incident. Children are naturally curious and will eavesdrop on your conversations. They may also listen through closed doors.
- Put the shooting in perspective. For some children, the vividness of a sensational news story can be internalized and transformed into something that might happen to them. With this tragedy happening so close to home, a child watching a news story about the shooting might worry, “Could I be next? Could that happen to me?” TV has the effect of shrinking the world and bringing it into our living rooms. By putting the shooting in perspective by talking about how many millions of children go to school each day, each year safely. These incidents are rare.
- Now is the time to really step up family time. Kiss spontaneously. Take the snuggle cure. Keep your structure and routines as normal as possible. If you feel yourself losing control, remind yourself of what is most important in your life. Know also when you need some TLC or professional help. If you are feeling overwhelmed don’t isolate. Reach out to friends or family members that can help you and your family through this difficult time.
- Find time to talk: Let your child’s questions determine how much information to give. Some children may not just start conversations with you. They may just hang around you more looking for you to ask them how they are doing. Look for these non-verbal clues. Also, remember to talk on their level. Elementary school children need brief, simple explanations that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and we as adults are there to protect them. Encourage them to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing. Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they are truly safe. Discuss the efforts the school and community are doing to provide safe schools. Upper middle school and high school students will have varying opinions about the cause of the shooting. They will want more information, but only you as their parent can decide how much you want to give them right away. This age group can be empowered to look after their own safety by not letting strangers into the school or reporting unusual situations.
- Seek help when necessary. If you are worried about a child’s reaction, have ongoing concerns about their behavior or emotions, contact a mental health professional at school or ask for a referral. This holds true for yourself. Be aware of any changes in your own behavior in terms of isolating, eating, sleeping, crying, bouts of anger, lack of joy in activities, or increase consumption of alcoholic beverages. Don’t hesitate to get help early on. You may need just a few sessions to get back on track.
As always, I am here to help you and your family in any way I can.