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.