Trauma specialist Dr. Saliha Bava offers advice on how to help children cope with the news of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
I am numbed to hear of the horrible mass shooting at Newtown, Conniticut. Even though I’m a disaster response specialist, I’m also a parent, and my heart goes out to all the families and community that have been impacted. As a Trauma specialist and Couple/Family Therapist, I have been asked by GMP what we can all do, and how to talk to our kids. I’m sharing a few things that I am focusing on with my elementary age child and family. I will share more as news unfolds.
What you read below is for children and families who have not been directly impacted by today’s shooting. If you have been directly impacted, please call 1-800-985-5990 or visit the website: http://www.disasterdistress.samhsa.gov/ and connect with the local resources in your community.
Attention to the Context
While talking to children, we have to be attentive to the following factors that impacts how to respond.
- Child’s age and development stage
- Child’s perception of danger or threat or death (varies by age & experience)
- Weather the child was a victim or witness of this incident or others
- If the child was related directly or indirectly to the shooting (related to the victim)
- Child and family’s own history of previous trauma, loss and death
- Availability of adults who can offer help or support
- The geographical distance: as new travels, places closer to the shooting site might have a more heightened response
- Family context: how are things in transition and what provides stability or consistency
- One’s sense of normalcy will vary depending on age, gender, ethnicity, religion, class, sexual orientation, location, current unsafe living conditions and many other factors that intersect and impact access to resources (edited 12/17)
- Responses vary
6 Ways to Help Your Child and Yourself as You Respond
1. Limit your child’s exposure: Keep your children from being exposed to the news. Limit TV/news viewing.
2. Limit your own exposure: Switch off the TV and radios, especially if you have kids around you. The more agitated you are, your kids can see and sense it. Think about it as a way of creating a sense of safety. Viewing or listening to the news and seeing all the pictures are ways that you are exposing yourself to traumatic images and thus increasing your sense of threat and lowering your sense of safety. Your children will draw on your sense of threat/safety
3. Listen to your child: Listen to your child, don’t just talk to them. Listen to what questions they have and how they are making sense of everything. If they have questions, don’t shut them down by saying “Don’t think about it.” They already are thinking, so ask them questions. Age appropriate answers are important. Kids have their own ideas about why bad things happen. Let them tell you. Younger kids, who were exposed, will have repeated questions. It is also good to encourage them to talk to their teacher. When kids ask factual questions, it is ok to say “we don’t know.” For instance, “Why did he shoot?” can be answered with,”We don’t know why he did it.”
4. Reassure your child: If your child is afraid to go to school, tell them that they are ok. “Your school is safe.” I know existentially it is hard to believe we and our kids are ok in the face of this shooting, but we have to do our bit to create a sense of safety and attempt to normalize things for them. Give them extra hugs and look them in the eye and let them know you love them.
5. Do the usual: Spend time and play with them. Do the things you do as part of your routine. Don’t let the news pull you out of your usual context (emotionally we are already feeling shook up. Breathe!). Kids will continue with their flow if they feel like their routine is as usual. All these are ways to reassure and create a sense of safety. (Again this is for kids who have not been directly victimized).
6. Check into your own reaction: As parents, it is important to step back from our own sense of shock, grief and agitation and step towards creating a local sense of normalcy. We need to separate our response that needs to be directed publicly (towards your school’s disaster preparedness, gun control, anti-bullying/violence policy etc) from what our child needs now. We need to focus right now on what each of us have to do with our family. Both are important, but separating them out helps us to direct our action.
Remember, Breathe and Keep Connecting
Keep breathing out the shock! And reach out to your family and friends to create a sense of community and support! Collective trauma calls for a collective response.
This article is not a substitute for any professional help that might be needed.