The Connecticut Commission on Children
The Connecticut Commission on Children
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Helping children and adults cope with events like the Newtown school shootings (cont.)

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Doctor advises adults on how to talk with children about the Newtown school shooting

SchonfeldBy David Schonfeld, MD
Director, National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement

Editor's note: Dr. Schonfeld wrote this for the Commission immediately after the shootings. His experience includes helping the residents of Aurora, Colorado in the aftermath of the July 2012 mass shooting inside a movie theater there. He is also pediatrician-in-chief at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

As the nation watches the reports about the recent Connecticut school shooting, many people may find themselves feeling anxious, worried, saddened or otherwise concerned. While adults may know how to express these feelings,often they do not know how to talk with children about the way the children are feeling.

For information from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, visit this resource page hosted by St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.

A message to parents and teachers on the one-year anniversary of the Newtown shootings

Elaine ZimmermanBy Elaine Zimmerman
Executive Director, Connecticut Commission on Children

December 13, 2013

Dear parents and teachers,

As the anniversary of the Newtown massacre arrives it seems closer to us than 12 months in time. The disaster took its toll on the lives of children, teachers, school leaders, and parents throughout Connecticut. A mother and son are also gone, buried with many unanswered questions. 12/14 will forever be a tragedy that slammed into one town with no preparation or explanation. Seconds changed all of our lives.

We feel the impact of this anniversary. Images have saturated the media for days now. Discussions take place without regard to younger listeners who will ask questions. And somehow this anniversary will arrive in dreams, memory, and collective discourse. If the children in your life raise questions, here are a few things to remember:

  1. Whenever possible, answer directly and honestly. Authentic response in tragedy is so important to children and youth. Listen carefully and answer. They may want to know just one answer, one detail. Then ask if there are other questions and make it clear that you will answer, to the best of your ability, whatever they are asking.
  2. Answer differently for different ages. Youth may have philosophical or psychological questions. Go with it when they ask about mental health, after life, violence or the impact of guns. Younger children may want to know concretes like what happened to the man who did the scary things in the school. Answer to their age level. (The answer in this case: He took himself away because he knew he did something very wrong. He will never come back again.)
  3. Offer hope. Connecticut took many actions afterward to make our state strong and safe. Security measures have been updated, mental health programs have been expanded, and other steps have been taken to keep the unstable from using guns. Schools and communities learned from Newtown, as did families. We are stronger, though markedly sad from this tragedy.
  4. Provide a message of warmth and security. Children need to know that home is safe, so show yours that you love them and will always protect them. There are no stronger barriers against the effects of violent and chaotic behavior than love and a sense of connection.
  5. Ensure that school is safe. As a teacher, note strong school safety measures and explain that school is one of the safest places in our communities. As a parent, learn what has changed in safety protocols, professional training, and building security since 12/14 for your own comfort, participation and messaging. Parents and teachers alike can explain current school safety, so children can play and learn together, in a relaxed manner.
  6. Get back to normal. Do not let a tragedy leak into play, routine and normal activity. A most healing activity is the comfort of routine with other children and adults . It is the familiarity of the daily way of moving through the day, with all its ups and downs that comforts like a blanket.
  7. Create ways to contribute to community, honoring 12/14. Often a symbolic act or participation in a collective act provides comfort. This might be something related to making the community strong. Children and youth were extremely interested in being strong together after 12/14. Many understood they could not stop the violence but felt comfort in being together.
  8. Know that losses such as 12/14 trigger other losses. It is like a ball that keeps bouncing on issues of irretrievable loss. If you notice your child or someone else’s appearing upset, give them sure room to talk. They may feel as if the Newtown shootings occurred yesterday. It may also be catalyzing some other loss or losses.
  9. Direct children to a school or community counselor who serves families if you perceive that the response they are showing might benefit from a professional conversation. Counseling can be tremendously helpful and nowadays is often short- term and focused. Signs might include trouble eating or sleeping, bad dreams, or aggressive play. Find out what is available at school and in your community for mental health support.
  10. Use play, sports, music and art. Play takes the sharpness out of pain. Art, through drawing, sculpture, painting, music as well as poetry, help articulate many inner feelings with a distinct and separate form. Physical activity, repetition and rhythm are calming and help children maintain balance.
  11. Recognize that our state will always remember 12/14. It is important to remember our history and to grow from it. Something bad took place that harmed a whole town and killed both children and adults. We will always remember and we will always grow and learn all we can to make our communities loving and strong.
  12. Let children and youth determine responses. Ask what your child would like to do to honor 12/14, if he or she asks questions and shows interest. This might be a drawing, special walk or a letter. If possible, focus on your own town or family, as Newtown is truly every town. Do the activity together so you can talk about it. Connection is a special balm against trauma.
  13. Honor heroes. There were many on 12/14 such as teachers, the principal, the police, many children, many neighbors. And there are many heroes every day. Help children see them and recognize them in our daily lives. Ask children who their heroes are. Mention yours. Talk about heroes together.
  14. Be prepared for the unsaid. Sometimes it takes a year to ask the key question or admit particular feelings of fear or guilt.
  15. Emotions are like seasons. They can stay underground, move like wind, swirl fast around, shift direction, and take shapes we are surprised by. It is OK to see this up and down change in something as unexpected and ineffable as 12/14. This will calm down.
  16. Lock up ammunition. Children and youth will experiment with guns if they can reach them. They may harm themselves or others, without intention. Protect them from such actions. Excess caution is wise here.
  17. Honor humility and place. Sometimes we do not have the answers. 12/14 was unfurled chaos, fast and furious. We have many questions and few answers. People are gone and we cannot explain all that we would wish to master. It is OK to tell your child you do not know the answer.
  18. Remember the good, not just the bad. Love is healing. Respect and dignity help scars even out and disappear.
  19. Anniversaries serve a purpose. They allow us to measure who we are and who we have become against an event. Take the time to measure who you are from 12/14 to now. It will help you be with your children or students honestly and with the care and stability they need.
  20. We are a strong community, together. Take care that no child is isolated. Build community in schools that assure open communication, counseling, a safe school climate with clear steps to reduce and intervene with harmful behaviors.

Remember what one Connecticut student said: "This tragedy may have hurt us, but it surely did not break us."

Sincerely,

Elaine Zimmerman, LCSW
Executive Director
Connecticut Commission on Children

 

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