Steps for Families to Consider in Aftermath of Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School

MILLIONS OF KIDS ARE SENT TO SCHOOL EVERY DAY with the expectation of a safe return home. Our notion of this guarantee has been shattered, leaving adults feeling as though their children are not safe and children feeling vulnerable to danger. Since it is the job of the adults in a society to keep children safe, this tragedy will lead many to experience a range of emotions. Some of the emotions many adults will move back and forth between include fear, sadness, anger, helplessness, and even denial in the struggle to process the senselessness of how these lives were lost on an elementary school campus last week. Children and adolescents may experience a range of emotions but often do not have the ability to identify or express their feelings. In this case some children may even feel their own lives are in danger, since the main target of these mass murders was children.

Adults can help children and adolescents through this difficult time by:

  • Not becoming over anxious (children pick up on your anxiety and that can add to their stress).
  • Model how to express feelings of sadness and grief and explain how you feel to your children.
  • Reduce the amount of time you and your children watch TV and Internet reports of the tragedy.
  • Find ways to comfort your children and provide strength for your children.
  • Hugs and cuddling are known to reduce stress. Include your pets in group hugs. If your child is feeling very fearful they may benefit from sleeping in close proximity to you for a couple of nights (in your bed or in a sleeping bag nearby).
  • Maintaining normal habits such as dinner time and a bedtime ritual helps provide structure.
  • Play can help reduce stress, especially games you can play with your children (coloring, board games, card games, etc.). Drawing can also be a way for children to express their feelings.
  • Reassure your children that they are safe and that you are safe too. Children may become clingy, not wanting to leave your side for fear that something bad will happen to them or to you.
  • Maintain a connection to the community. Visit the local recreation center where families gather and share comfort. Visit your local religious establishment offering comfort and connection.
  • Offer to volunteer as a playground monitor at your child’s school for a few days, especially if you are a coach of a community youth team or a regular presence at the school, as this will help children feel safer while they are coping with shock and fear reactions resulting from this tragedy.
  • Keep communication open by being present and available for your children. You don’t need to have all of the answers, just be there.

Don’t force children to talk about their feelings. Be ready to listen when they are ready to talk. All feelings are valid. A child may be more “clingy” than usual and this is normal behavior under the circumstances. Adolescents in particular have moments when they are open to engaging in a discussion with parents or guardians. In general, you may have noticed your child or adolescent is best at communicating on the ride home from school, at dinner, or via text message. Often during the long process of their own identity development, children and adolescents can become less talkative and moody, leaving parents and guardians frustrated over difficulties with communication. This is where it is up to the adult in the relationship to discover the best time to share meaningful communication with their child or adolescent. Children and adolescents will experience healthier outcomes when they are not left alone to process powerful feelings and emotions. Find a way into their world where you can help them identify and normalize their experiences. Sometimes it starts with sharing how you feel.

Some children and adolescents may already be dealing with a crisis such as parents divorcing, loss of a pet or significant person in their lives, family member in the military, etc.  This tragedy may amplify difficult feelings they are already struggling with. Some children may experience severe reactions like crying, shaking, and regression (bed wetting, thumb sucking). If your child or adolescent demonstrates impaired functioning in concentration and school performance, aggression, isolation, changes in appetite, and lack of healthy connections and relationships then it is time to visit the pediatrician and ask for a referral to consult with a child and adolescent mental health specialist.

This tragic event takes a toll on everyone. Help the vulnerable in your community who may be less able to cope with this tragedy if you are able. If you feel overwhelmed, stay connected to friends and family, consult with your general medical practitioner, and seek guidance from a mental health professional if needed.

In the days to come we must continue to focus on what can be done to prevent these avoidable tragedies. Clearly, firearm-related mortality among children and adolescents must be recognized as a major health problem in this country. With high levels of suicidal tendencies among adolescents, easy availability of extremely lethal means, and low levels of mental health support, it is incumbent on policy makers and health care professionals to determine how to effectively translate research into life-enhancing outcomes for society’s youth.

Caren Caty, Ph.D.

The Best Coping Mechanism Might Be Covered in Fur: Helping Children Understand the Newtown, CT Tragedy

Animals Key to Helping Kids Cope with Stress

AS THE NEWS CONTINUES TO UNFOLD ABOUT THE TRAGEDY IN CONNECTICUT, American Humane Association stands ready to assist in any way it can. The facts in the case are still being uncovered, but we do know that this tragedy has left at least 20 of our most precious treasures – our children – and at least seven other adults dead in the wake of one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. As a mother of three, it breaks my heart for the families affected; this is the call no parent ever, ever wants to receive. I shared the president’s sentiment in hugging my children a little tighter when they came home from school on Friday afternoon.

Animal-assisted therapy handlers constantly report is that children in particular feel they can share secrets with the animals and tell them their true feelings because they believe the animal will listen and love them unconditionally.

Last year, in our organization’s annual report, I mentioned the compassion fatigue in this country; every day we’re inundated with horrible stories in the news where our animals and children are suffering at the hands of an unforgiving world. While organizations like American Humane Association are out there doing all they can to prevent this senselessness, unfortunately it seems we have a long way to go before our work is done.

This year was particularly stormy for our children, and while attacks like this can unfortunately never be predicted, we need to be prepared to help our children cope whenever despicable acts like this occur. Following the massacre in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado this summer, American Humane Association shared tips on helping children understand what happened. Given that this Friday’s attack occurred in an elementary school – a place where children should feel safe no matter what – I feel it’s appropriate to share these with you again:

  • Keep an eye on children’s emotional reactions. Talk to children – and just as important – listen to them. Encourage kids to express how they feel and ask if anything is worrying them.
  • Regardless of age, reassure them frequently of their safety and security, and reinforce that you, local officials, and their communities are working to keep them safe. Older children may seem more capable, but can also be affected.
  • Keep your descriptions to children simple and limit their exposure to graphic information. Keep to the basic facts that something bad happened but that they are safe. Use words they can understand and avoid technical details and terms such as “smoke grenades” and “sniper.”
  • Limit their access to television and radio news reports since young children may have trouble processing the enormity of the experience, and sometimes believe that each news report may be a new attack.
  • Be prepared for children to ask if such violence can occur to them. Do not lie but repeat that it is very unlikely and that you, their teachers and school staff are there to keep them safe.
  • Watch for symptoms of stress, including clinginess, stomachaches, headaches, nightmares, trouble eating or sleeping, or changes in behavior.
  • If you are concerned about the way your children are responding, consult your doctor, school counselor or local mental health professional.
  • The last point is particularly important: if you feel your child needs help beyond your capacity, please do not delay in getting them the help they need.

One thing we have found over the years is that oftentimes, there’s no better therapy than what comes from an animal. Whether it’s with the family pet, a neighbor’s pet, or even a visit to the zoo, sometimes the best cure comes on four legs and is covered in fur. For years, American Humane Association’s animal-assisted therapy teams have worked to bring comfort to those in hospitals, schools, prisons, and to children of military families. One interesting observation our animal-assisted therapy handlers constantly report is that children in particular feel they can share secrets with the animals and tell them their true feelings because they believe the animal will listen and love them unconditionally.

While we may never know the motives for the shooter’s heinous actions, we do know that whenever tragedies like this arise – and, unfortunately they will again inevitably, as much as we’d like that to not be the case – we need to do all we can to help our children cope. The world can be a scary place for children, but by hugging a dog, or holding a cat, we can show them that everything’s going to be ok. The world is scary at times for all species, but the human-animal bond can help us heal.

Again, our deepest condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims in Connecticut. Please know you’ll remain in our thoughts and prayers.

On My Holiday Reading List: ‘Raising My Furry Children’

This holiday season, I want to take the opportunity to share with you a few books that have been on my reading list lately; books that will make the perfect gift for the animal lover in your life. These books offer tales of hope and will surely bring a smile to that special someone’s face.

If you’re looking for a little light reading in between shopping, fixing the family meal and everything else, why not take a few minutes to flip the pages of Tracy Ahrens’ recent book, Raising My Furry Children? I know things can get hectic this time of year, but picking up this book and reading a couple of her very short tales—only a few pages at most per story—will certainly be a welcome diversion.

Tracy uses this book to introduce us to all five of her kids, but these aren’t the two-legged kind. Each is furry, and each has a tail. Tracy is referring to her pets and the joy and mischief they bring to her virtually every day.

Her Brittany spaniel, Speckles, is like most dogs always looking to get in a bit of trouble. He loves scampering off with wads of paper from the wastebasket, enjoys rooting through the dirty laundry basket, and is, according to Tracy, a bit of a lush. Thankfully, he mostly imbibes water, but the occasional glass of iced tea isn’t safe from the reach of his tongue if no one is around.

Tracy also tells how she became the proud parent of four cats: Desdemona, Chocolate Drop, Joan of Arc and Captain Jack Sparrow. Each has a unique way in which they came into her life, but together the four cats make quite a partnership, and offer great companionship to her. Whenever she or her husband come and go, each of the five animals has a way of greeting them or saying goodbye. If Joan were a child, Tracy writes, she would’ve been taken away by the Department of Child and Family Services for all the mishaps she’s gotten into.

With such a full house, Tracy never feels alone; rather, she feels the love reciprocated by her five “kids.” What she has done with this book is to demonstrate the power of the human-animal bond, something we work to underscore and celebrate every day at American Humane Association. Tracy understands the value of studying the link and its importance in forging humane communities, which is why she has generously agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds from this book back to our institution. For that, we are grateful.

Overcoming “Fears of Fostering”

This year, I will once again get to experience Halloween through the eyes of a child. Now that we have four foster children, we will be busy picking out costumes, attempting to secretly substitute candy for toothbrushes and floss, and equipping our kids with whistles and the know-how to yell “Stranger Danger!” when they feel threatened. While kids this time of year may fear imaginary ghosts and monsters, foster parents face the real fear of the unknown and uncertain future of the children for whom they provide care. This can discourage couples or singles from becoming foster parents. If looking to adopt, they may not want to foster because they feel there is too great a risk that they may lose the child with whom they’ve fallen in love. Or, they may have heard how “crazy, unstable, and unpredictable” foster children can be.

As I travel the country and educate people about the need to find stability and lifelong connections for the most vulnerable children in society — foster children — I hear a similar list of preconceived notions and reservations. Here are the top fostering fears, myths, and fallacies that I’ve heard:

  • These kids are so aggressive and angry, and they might hurt my biological children or pets.
  • They have rages and might burn my house down or threaten me with a knife.
  • There are no “normal” foster kids — they all have developmental delays, learning disabilities, handicaps, or special needs.
  • What if I adopt and raise this child and then she or he goes back to a biological parent who reappears out of nowhere?
  • I’m single, divorced, or gay, so I can’t be a foster or adoptive parent.
  • What if I get falsely accused of child abuse? I’ll run the risk of losing my own biological children or ruining my marriage and reputation!

Like us parents, foster kids have their own set of fears:

  • If I love this new family, I’ll be giving up on or betraying my biological family.
  • I don’t want to lose my identity or culture.
  • I don’t deserve to be happy or be loved.
  • I may not get to see my brothers or sisters anymore.
  • This new family is all too good to be true, no one really lives happily ever after.
  • They can still just send me back; adults break promises all the time.

The reality is that the kinds of children who are in need of permanent homes are about as diverse as a bag of Halloween candy. We currently have four beautiful little boys in our home, each under the age of five. They all were a bit wary, timid, and upset when they came to us, but we have provided them with a loving and stable environment, meeting their needs. They are now the most vibrant and loving little ones any family could hope for.

In a surprising twist, at least two will be available for adoption. While their case plans stated reunification with their parents as the primary goal, it doesn’t appear that will occur for them. They are not alone, in a child welfare system that privileges strangers with resources, while it struggles to provide the birth families with the supports and help to overcome the issues that brought the children into the foster care system. What will happen to these children? At American Humane Association, we encourage the child welfare agency that has custody to hold a family group conference to bring together these children’s extended family system, friends, community supporters, foster parents, and other system professionals to craft a plan for their children. The possibilities are endless for the plans, and would build on the culture, capacity, and strengths of those assembled. This type of decision making humanizes the child welfare system. Each child comes into care for a different reason, and each case must be taken on an individual basis. There is no cookie-cutter answer for what’s best for each child or family. But a universal truth is that safety, stability, and permanency or lifelong connections are necessary to support children’s growth and development.

The best thing we can do for these children and the system is to be personal ambassadors for the cause. I hope my little family can serve as an example of how inspiring, energizing, and rewarding foster parenting can be. Yes, there are frustrating and sad times, but I use those moments as learning tools so that I can become a better advocate and parent. I have the most amazing little ones living in my home, and I wish I could share them with everyone (but that would obviously be a breach in confidentiality!). As a parent, you always advocate for your own children, and these kids need the same voice and loving arms.

Please consider looking into becoming a foster or adoptive parent. There are many children and youth who need caring adults to play both temporary and long-term roles in raising them into adulthood.

Armed with good intentions and a little information, we can make foster care a little less scary — for adults and kids alike. Let’s keep fears and chills back where they belong…at Halloween time.

A Tribute to ‘Dad’

“Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.”

As cliché as it may sound, I truly believe that “any man can be a father, but it takes a special person to be a dad.” Being a part of American Humane Association’s Fatherhood Initiative, which helps connect children involved with the child welfare system with their dads and paternal kin, reinforces for me this distinction and the great influence my Dad has in my life.

I feel beyond fortunate to have two very loving and supportive parents — and even more aunts, uncles, grandparents, and close family friends who have provided additional encouragement and love to me throughout the years. Yet, there is something special about the “daddy-daughter” relationship, as we know that dads contribute in unique ways to the development of their children. So, in honor of Father’s Day, I wanted to take the time to reflect on the influence my Dad has on me by sharing some of the life lessons I’ve learned from him.

Work hard, play hard — but work hard first. This lesson was instilled in me by my Dad and my paternal grandfather. Commitment and dedication to education and professional pursuits are important values in our family, yet just as important is taking time out from those pursuits to “play hard.” My Dad has modeled this for my brother and me and is quick to remind us that vacation days are meant to be taken.

Find a way to connect to what you feel passionate about on a daily basis. At every major turning point in my life, I can remember talking with my parents for guidance about what decision to make or path to head down. In each conversation with my Dad (some lasting hours on end), he never “gives me the answer” or tells me what to do. Instead, he asks me just the right questions to help me see the choice or decision that is best for me and that allows me to connect with what I feel most passionate about.

Don’t be afraid to show your emotions. Through family “meetings” and conversations, my brother and I were encouraged as kids to openly share our feelings related to whatever was facing our family at the time. My Dad models this by being open with us about his own feelings and emotions, including telling us how much he loves us at every opportunity. As an adult, I realize that having had this type of relationship with my Dad has empowered me to speak up for myself and my beliefs in all parts of my life.

Get dirty. On the softball field as a young kid, my Dad used to yell this to me as my cue to slide into a base to avoid getting tagged out. But, I liked having a clean uniform, so I just tried to run faster to keep it that way. I realize now that my Dad just wanted me to live in the moment and enjoy being in the Great Outdoors. It’s no wonder that’s where I spend most of my free time now and why I chose to move to Colorado.

Be there for your family and friends. I cannot remember a single time when I needed my Dad and he wasn’t there for me. Whether in person or on the other end of the phone line, he models for me what it means to love your family and friends unconditionally — through the good times and the bad — and to be there for each other, no matter what.

Believe in your worth and pursue your dreams. When life brings challenges, I can hear my Dad’s voice in the back of my mind — echoing sentiments he has told me over the years about my worth in the world and to others. Whatever they have been (even if it has meant moving hundreds or thousands of miles away), my Dad has always supported me to pursue my dreams. He has encouraged me to dream big, set my eye on the prize, and go for it.

These lessons, and many more, have shaped me into the woman I have become today. Continuing to reap the benefits of a strong “daddy-daughter” relationship even as an adult, I know how special the love, support and encouragement of a dad can be. Each child deserves this type of relationship, and I’m proud to be part of the work of American Humane Association in making that possible for children across America.

Why I Celebrate Father’s Day

Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Growing up, I never thought Father’s Day would mean anything to me. I still don’t know who my biological father is, and during my 10 years in foster care, I never had a memorable father figure. But today, I relish celebrating Father’s Day every June because I have one of the best fathers anyone could ask for. After I was adopted, I learned what it means to be “daddy’s little girl”! My adoptive father, Phil Courter, ensured that every moment of my days was filled with laughter, joy, and love. We worked on projects together in his workshop, bounced on the trampoline, swam until our fingers wrinkled, and tossed balls from every sport. He nurtured me, believed in me, and helped form me into who I am today.

Fathers play a critical role in the development and well-being of their children. Nationally, there is a strong movement to highlight the importance of fathers, and child welfare agencies are no longer simply looking to the biological mothers for resources and family ties. Stay-at-home dads are more common than ever, with more serving as primary caretakers of their children. American Humane Association has taken a special interest in this issue with their fatherhood initiative. By visiting the fatherhood initiative website, dads can learn more about how to interact with their kids at various ages and stages, and readers can see statistics that support the evidence that fathers are essential in the development of their children.

Children are very observant and are constantly absorbing the world around them. To this day, my dad brings my mother tea in bed every morning and he is always kind, respectful, and honest with others. Until this couple came into my life, I had never witnessed a healthy marriage and relationship. By watching my adoptive parents interact with one another and their communities, they modeled positive friendships and partnerships that I can emulate for the children in my life. Phil didn’t yell, or cheat, and was never violent; the absence of those unacceptable or unproductive behaviors is not lost on me. Many of my former foster brothers and sisters grew up and either became abusers or entered into abusive relationships because that was their childhood experience. Dads have an opportunity to change these perspectives with their children by giving examples of what caring, dedicated men look like.

No child can ever have too many people in their lives who care about them. Having a positive father figure changed my life for the better and I can’t wait to celebrate his contributions this Father’s Day!

Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a National Ambassador for American Humane Association and author of the New York Times best-selling memoir, “Three Little Words,” which describes her life in the foster care system.