When a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut and killed 26 people, mostly young children, he changed the collective psyche of our nation. The grief of those who lost loved ones is unimaginable, especially when you consider how many young lives were cut short in a single community, and how many children will be forever scarred by what they witnessed that day.
Tragedy on this scale reaches far beyond the boundaries of a map. As our country mourns, parents everywhere are grappling with what they should tell their own children, even as they wrestle their own fears. No matter where we live, we can’t shield children from an event of this magnitude. Soon the round-the-clock coverage will end, but the ripple effect for parents and children all around the country has only just begun.
How should parents handle the issue of school shootings with their children? For insight into this emotional and confusing topic, Care2 turned to Ellin Bloch, Ph.D., California School of Professional Psychology-Alliant International University Los Angeles, who specializes in trauma psychology and recovery.
How to Talk to Your Kids About School Shootings: Q & A with Dr. Ellin Bloch
What are the long-term ripple effects of school shootings?
It may depend a great deal on how parents are handling this. When parents get tremendously anxious, the child will pick that up — and kids have big ears — they overhear conversations and have access to TV and social media.
Children of all ages may be anxious about returning to school. Older children have been exposed to other major events in recent years, including shootings in malls, movie theaters, etc., so the larger context must be considered. They may wonder if this can happen anywhere, leading to a feeling of uncertainty and lack of safety. It is important that parents handle this in a relatively calm manner.
Generally, the further away in geographical proximity an event occurs, the less the impact. There is not yet enough research regarding the long-term effect of these events in today’s age of instant and constant information access.
If a child doesn’t ask questions or seems indifferent, should parents broach the subject anyway?
Not always, but there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The key here is to listen and observe.
- LISTEN: Younger children may not be able to verbalize their feelings or ask specific questions, so you need to listen carefully. Older children are more likely to talk to each other rather than to their parents.
- OBSERVE: If your child hasn’t mentioned the tragedy at all, you may have to observe to learn why. This is so important for parents to do. Rather than talk, children may isolate themselves in a bedroom. Other signs that something is bothering them include inability to sleep, nightmares, headaches, or tummy aches. If you observe your child sitting in front of the TV, watching the news over and over, sit down with them and ask what they are thinking about.
- ASK: You might want to ask the child if he or she has heard about the shooting, or what they thought about it. When asked, most children will respond and initiate a conversation.
If your child seems fine and is going to school, playing, talking, and seems to be in a relatively good mood, it may not be necessary to start lecturing or bringing up something that may not be significant in your child’s life at the moment. Psychologically, we tend to pay attention to what is happening right in front of us. Depending on what’s going on in your child’s life, he or she may have many other things to think about.
There’s no reason to rush in or assume that your child has been directly or negatively impacted by this event. Things like this can take time to settle in. Even in adults, it sometimes takes awhile to process tragedy.
What should parents do if their child doesn’t want to go to school?
That’s the time to really ask questions like, “Are you afraid?” If the answer is “yes,” ask “What are you afraid of?” Reasons may vary from fear of being shot or killed to fear of a friend being shot or killed or perhaps knowledge of another student who is not attending school.
School is a child’s community, an outlet in which to express themselves and where appropriate interventions can take place. Come January, after school breaks are over, it is my hope that schools will be prepared for this. As much as a parent can do, the burden will, for better or worse, fall on the schools. They need to come up with a safety plan, open the lines of communication with parents, and have someone available to speak with the children.
If your child is fearful, you can phase school in slowly. You may tell them they can attend for a half a day to see how it feels. You can arrange to personally drop them off and pick them up for awhile. You and your child can meet with the principal, school counselor, or teacher to see what you can do to help your child reenter school life.
What are the warning signs of deep psychological trauma?
Children can’t always conceptualize or verbalize their feelings. Headaches, sleep disturbances, or other physical ailments sometimes signal emotional upheaval. As a first step, take your child to your family doctor or pediatrician. If your doctor feels it is warranted, don’t hesitate to seek professional counseling.
Keep in mind that much is dependent on what has happened in a child’s life before this trauma, and what they face in the future. If the child already had emotional problems, an event like a school shooting may feed into that. Each child’s experiences are different.
School shootings are as traumatizing to parents as they are to children. What should parents do if they don’t feel it is safe to send their child to school?
Parents need to be reassured. In many ways, this is more difficult for parents than for children.
Your best bet is to stay in contact with and be in close communication with the school. Find out what measures they have in place. Ask if they have scheduled any meetings with parents or have a way for parents to connect and support each other.
There is a danger in overprotecting our children. It is important to remember that this is an extremely rare event. People have a tendency to overestimate the risk of rare events while underestimating those that happen every day. It’s part of human nature, but if you notice yourself doing this, it may be time to pull back a little so your child can move forward in the midst of tragedy.
When it comes to parents and children, anxiety happens by osmosis. Anxious parents often have children who are afraid. Just as you would ask of your child, ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” If you cannot effectively deal with the answers on your own, seek professional counseling for your anxiety. It often takes only one or two sessions with a good therapist to begin healing.
Any suggestions on what NOT to do moving forward?
Don’t freak out in front of the children. The less they see of your own anxiety, the better.
When a tragic news story breaks, do not leave the TV on all day, and don’t leave your children alone in front of the TV. When you do have the TV on, watch with them so you can observe their reactions help them to understand. Very young children don’t have enough knowledge of geography to understand how close something is. They may worry unnecessarily that the violence is taking place in their own neighborhood.
Do give your children healthy messages, says Dr. Bloch. “Show them that you are able to go on with life and the things you need to do without this becoming the centerpiece of the family’s concern. Parents must keep themselves together for the sake of the children — even if they’re afraid and worried.”
Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families of the victims, as well as to those who survive.