It is not the single traumatic event found in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass murder. The world seems berieved in the aftermath of this horror, and all of us mothers mourn for the mothers of the children tragically lost. At University Behavioral HealthCare, "UBHC" we have experts in childhood trauma and grief in a program entitled the "Traumatic Loss Coalition for Youth (TLC)". This team of experts share tips on their website and respond in our communities on a daily basis offering support in response to traumatic loss that affects youth in New Jersey. Their material can be found at http://ubhc.umdnj.edu/brti/tlc/. Highlighted are some key talking points for parents speaking to youth following mass violence from their material and expertise at TLC.
Mass violence is shocking and disturbing to youth on so many levels. One is that it disrupts the way that they see the world. When threat is minimal, youth see the world as a safe and meaningful place and they feel a sense of control over their environment. When threat is high, youth can feel out of control, unsafe and that the world has lost its meaning. They can begin to worry that dangerous things can befall them or those they love. When violence is perpetrated by adults, the very people youth look to for protection, the impact is powerful. Additionally, venues such as movie theatres and other public places of entertainment are where youths and their families go for fun and relaxation and where they feel safe and free from harm.
Parents and school personnel can be helpful in mitigating the emotional effects of community violence on youths. Below are some strategies for dealing with these tragedies and assisting youth in regaining their sense of safety and security.
- Monitor the amount of TV watching. It is important to monitor what youths are viewing and limit their exposure to upsetting media coverage.
- Ask your children what they have heard or what other kids are saying
Give youth accurate information and correct any misinformation. Gear the information to their age and refrain from focusing on the graphic details of the incident.
- Find out what concerns your child has and take them seriously
Youth often feel more vulnerable than adults because of their size and their limited physical and emotional resources. Therefore, some of their fears may seem trivial or unrealistic to adults but can occupy the youth’s thoughts and dreams just the same. It is important to take their concerns seriously and offer reassurance .You can ask them "After hearing about this, what do you think most kids worry about?"
- Tackle the tough questions
Children will ask questions like "why did this happen?" Imbedded in this question are several others: "How could someone get so out of control to do this kind of thing?" and "Could this happen to me or to people I love?"
- Why did this happen?
Explain to youth we may not know the exact reason why this violence occurred, but it is clear that the person that did these things was very troubled and was not able to think clearly about how to deal with their thoughts, feelings and problems. The result was that they were not able to control their impulses or urges to hurt others. This is a good time to teach the importance of seeking help. Explain to children “sometimes people have thoughts and feelings that make them feel hurt, angry, confused, or scared inside. It is important for everyone to have someone to talk to who can help them solve problems and feel better.
- Could this happen to me or to people that I care about?
To balance the enormity of violent acts, it is important to explain to youth that these kinds of events are very unusual. Most people do not want to hurt others. It is important to bring the discussion back to the youth’s own experiences and talk about the adults in their life who love them and are there to protect them
- Keep the routine
Routine provides youth with a sense of security. The routine of daily activities including school, after school activities and sports are important to mitigate the feeling that the ‘world is out of control’.
- Spend time together as a family
Increase opportunities for play, fun and relaxation. Connecting with friends and family members helps children feel there is a safety net of people around them.
- Allow some time for extra comforting
Youth often need some additional time for soothing and comforting when they are dealing with upsetting circumstances. Extra hugs, cuddling, and story telling (even middle school youth enjoy having their parents read to them), are helpful. After these kinds of incidents, children and teens may have nightmares or fears. It might be helpful to allow the child to sleep in close proximity to the parents for a bit of time
- Process your own feelings
Youth will take their cues from the adults around them. It is important for the adults to take care of themselves and their feelings as well as their child’s. If you are feeling upset, anxious or fearful it will be important for you to find a trusted adult to talk to. Avoid talking about your fears in front of your children.
- Monitor your child’s behavior and seek assistance if necessary
While the signs and symptoms below can be normal in the early days and weeks following a violent incident, if they do not abate or they increase, additional help may be required. If you have concerns about your child, do not hesitate to contact your school’s counseling department or your local community behavioral health center.
- Somatic complaints (stomachaches, headaches and muscle pain)
- Changes in eating
- Changes in behavior (increase in irritability, aggression, anger, or becoming more fearful and clinging)
- Changes in school performance
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Difficulty concentrating
- Inability to stop thinking about the event
- Refusing to attend school
- Worrying excessively about something bad happening to them or someone they love
As always, if any of your concern about your child’s behavior is an issue consult your pediatrician and a licensed child behavioral healthcare professional to ensure your child gets the care that he or she needs. Cherish the moments with your children, slow down, offer extra hugs and love while quietly offering prayer and healing to the mothers who can only hold onto their memories this holiday season.
The Mom 2 Mom peer helpline program at University Behavioral HealthCare (UBHC) – UMDNJ is staffed by “Mom Peers” who have special needs children partnered with mental health professionals to offer peer support. Our children’s challenges range from mild developmental disabilities, epilepsy, autism, and even cancer however our trauma is found in everyday moments and our stress is cumulative as caregivers.