The whole nation is reeling with the news of today’s tragic shooting spree at a Connecticut elementary school. I had to take a break from social media and even from my work for a good cry because I just couldn’t take seeing all the status updates and news updates coming in. It was too much sadness – and a bit of anger – to bear.
And yet I’m a grown adult who reads and writes about mental health and tragic circumstances all the time. How are the nation’s children handling this news? The answer to that is going to depend heavily on how the adults around them are reacting and communicating with them.
Scott Hensley at NPR’s Shots Blog offers some tips from experts about what parents should do for their children right now – first of which is to limit their exposure to all the stories in the media. This can be difficult to do, but reducing how much they see and hear about the tragedy – especially images – can help mediate the intensity of their reaction.
As I’ve written about previously, studies have shown us that just witnessing violence can leave lasting effects on children’s psyche and mental health, and children can experience symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder from viewing stories about real violence on television.
But that also doesn’t mean you should pretend like nothing has happened. In fact, that could be among the worst things you could do. “Little kids process the same way we do. We have to keep talking about it,” Kate Gose, a licensed family therapist associate in Austin, Texas, told me. “They’ll keep bringing it up and keep wanting to talk about it. Really the best way to help them process is to let them keep talking about it and asking questions and not make it taboo.”
If you have teenagers, it may be helpful to discuss with them the stages of grief. Understanding that their feelings – whatever they are – are valid and normal and knowing what emotions they might expect to feel can help them cope. The National Institute of Mental Health also offers a helpful guide in navigating the terrain when trying to help children deal with the aftermath of violence and trauma. Even though a child might live on the other side of the country, the events in Connecticut today can affect them just as deeply as they would any adult.
Their online guide “What Parents Can Do” is helpful and free, and they describe some of the behaviors you might expect to see in your children as they try to process this event. Younger children may become clingy or agitated and may cry or whimper. They may also revert to childhood behaviors like thumb-sucking, bedwetting or fear of the dark.
Elementary-aged children may become quiet and isolated or may start fights and have outbursts of anger. They may experience any of the aspects of standard grief – depression, fear, guilt, numbness, difficulty concentration, irritability, poor sleep. These feelings may also occur among teenagers, who might display uncharacteristic antisocial behavior.
As Gose points out, just because children are very young doesn’t mean they won’t notice something is off. “With small children, they’re going to pick up on what’s going on, the sadness and the grief,” she says. “With itty bitty kids, if they’re confused about energy in the room or if they sensing that there are feelings in the room that’s not being discussed, it’s not uncommon for them to act out in weird ways, like having a tantrum or having bad dreams.”
As a parent, the most important thing you can do is listen and let children experience their emotions. If they need to cry, they should cry. If they need to talk about it or ask questions, allow it, even if they are questions you cannot answer. The NIMH parents guide offers very specific “do’s and don’t’s” for parents here.
Openness and awareness are key. Says Gose, “Pay attention – just because they’re little doesn’t mean they can’t be included in the conversation.