Parents Key to Easing Psychological Impact of Conn. Shootings
Communication can help children, and adults, cope with the senseless tragedy, mental health experts say
FRIDAY, Dec. 14, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Details were still emerging about the horrific shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut Friday morning that has killed more than two dozen people, most of them children. But talk is already turning to how to help children and adults both near and far away cope with the tragedy.
The mass shooting is one of the worst in U.S. history. People in Newton, Conn., and nearby communities "are going to have a very strong stress reaction in the immediate period following any kind of traumatic event," said Elissa Brown, a professor of psychology at St. John's University in New York City.
That's especially true given the other tragedies this region has suffered recently, including Hurricane Sandy, which left many without heat and hot water for weeks after the storm.
And earlier this week, an eerily familiar shooting took place at a mall in Portland, Ore., where a gunman left two people dead.
Worried parents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton need, first and foremost, to make sure their children are physically safe, Brown said.
But the psychological toll will be tough on both children and adults alike. In an address to the nation Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama said that "there is not a parent in the U.S. who does not feel the same overwhelming grief as I do," the Washington Post reported.
As soon as physical safety has been established, the children and adults need to know they have emotional support, experts said.
"Social support for various kinds of trauma has been shown over and over again to be key to resilience," Brown said. "It's to know you have someone to lean on."
Children, no matter where they live, also need to be able to express their feelings about what happened, the psychologist said.
This doesn't mean encouraging them to tell the story over and over again, or allowing them to watch media accounts of the shooting, Brown said. "That can bring on PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]," she noted.
Instead, try connecting children with their "natural coping skills," Brown advised. Perhaps ask them to remember another time when they were distressed -- maybe a fight with a friend -- and recall how they coped then.
"The way we handle daily hassles can also be applied to something very frightening," Brown said.
Adults should try to inform children without overwhelming them. One way to navigate this process is to open up the lines of communication but let the kids themselves take the lead, Brown said.
"Answer questions but only answer questions they ask you," she recommended. "Children tend to ask questions at the developmental level where they can receive answers. If you let them guide the conversation you're in better shape."
Children may also express their discomfort in other ways, for example, being afraid to get on an airplane for holiday travel. "Caregivers need to be able to read the signs," Brown said.
And remember that children who have experienced multiple traumas in the past are more likely to be vulnerable to the emotional consequences of this latest rampage.
Adults can also offer "gentle words, a hug when appropriate or sometimes just being present with them and not leaving them alone," said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child/adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, NY.
Right now, the reaction at the Newton school and surrounding community is one of "shock and disbelief," he said. "As the story unfolds, there will be opportunities for different reactions. It'll take a period of time before the school and the community can return to a new normal," he added.
And that "new normal" will be a far cry from what children and adults had known previously.
When the school doors do open again, "the school will have a new meaning," said Fornari. "It will be a sacred place because beloved people will have lost their lives there. People will have to create areas for memorials, create certain rituals in order to make the school a place where people will feel safe to learn."
There's more on helping kids deal with anxiety at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.