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.