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CT shooting causes trauma across nation: how to talk to your kids

9:09 PM, Dec 14, 2012   |    comments
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by Cathy Lynn Grossman and Liz Szabo, USA TODAY

Parents, turn off your TV, hug your child, and brace for a long, sad weekend as news of the Newtown elementary school shootings ricochets around the nation and dominates the media.

That was the emphatic advice of school counselors and psychologists as word of 27 deaths, including 18 children and the reported gunman, horrified the nation Friday morning.

Young children, from Connecticut to California, who witness the violent attack at Sandy Hook Elementary or see it replayed constantly on news, may not be developmentally old enough to understand death and its finality, says Cathy Paine, chair of the National Association of School Psychologists; national emergency team.

While East Coast members of the team were dispatched to assist in Newtown to offer comfort and professional advice on recovery, Paine said every parent has a job to create a sense of safety, routine and normalcy that will help frightened children regain their footing.

Stuart Goldman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Boston, advised parents of small children to "put up as much of a firewall as they can" to prevent kids from hearing about the tragedy.

"This isn't a good time to be running the six o'clock news during dinner," Goldman says. "Watch DVDs tonight, instead of TV, so you don't risk having someone interrupt the show with breaking news about the shooting."

Studies suggest that kids who watch more media coverage of shootings or other violent events are more traumatized than other kids, says David Schonfeld, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics who has worked with mass shooting survivors in Aurora, Colo. and other places.

Of course, kids aren't only exposed to news from TV anymore. Children may also learn about the shooting from their phone or through social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. Watching tragic events unfold in real time, through breaking tweets or Facebook posts, can create tremendous anxiety, making both adults and children feel as if they are experiencing the trauma themselves, Schonfeld says.

This can distort people's sense of how rare such shootings actually are. The number of school shootings has declined dramatically over the past 15 years, says Dewey Cornell, director of the University of Virginia's Youth Violence Project and a professor of education. And he notes that a "small fraction" of the country's mass shootings take place in schools.

"We must be careful not to let the enormity of this tragedy affect our perception of the safety of our schools," Cornell says, pointing out that it is "a bit misleading to call these events school shootings, because the school is simply the location and not the cause of the event," Cornell says.

Wherever parents are, "tune in to your own child and listen closely, says Peter Saxe, chairman of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the New York University Langone Medical Center and director of the NYC Child Study Center.

Saxe says children will fear that this could happen at any school. They may speak up about it or just sit silently worrying that a place that "should be one of safety and learning has become a place where a terrible thing can happen"

Tell your child clear answers to their concerns and assure them as much as possible. Stress, Saxe says, that "We do everything we can to make sure you are safe."

Then stay together. "This is a time when children need to be with their families," he says.

At Sandy Hook, a raft of counseling programs and safety provisions will be readied in the next few days to help the community recover and reclaim their school. And those programs must address all ages, says Cheri Lovre, of the Oregon-based Crisis Management Institute, who worked with New York City Schools after 9/11.

"Children will get as well as the adults around them, their parents and teachers," Lovre says.

"This a huge tear in the tapestry of everyday life. The scar will be there forever but we all have scars. The difference is whether it will be an open wound," she says. "Young children don't have a sense of history and context for this. They won't know it is not an ongoing event."

It's critical to "rebuild trust in the school," Lovre says. That will require highly scripted re-entry programs that consult parents and children about their concerns and fears before the school doors reopen.

The Newtown community faces both trauma and grief and they can't be dealt with simultaneously. Grief counseling opens up emotions and reminds people of their vulnerability, Lovre says, so it is best to deal first with the trauma.

An obvious show of force, such as uniformed patrols, police cars, barricades and metal detectors, may not accomplish this. Lovre says children themselves will tell you, if asked, what they need to feel safe.

"They may say they really want to see more moms in the hall or moms in the classroom. Children need to see that adults have taken control of the situation.The sooner children feel safe, the stronger they are cognitively and the better able they will be to deal with the emotions of loss," she says.

Then, Lovre advises, "Take a deep breath and be as stable a parent as you can. If you have to talk about this with someone, talk to another adult away from the children."

Expertise available online from counselors, psychologists and trauma specialists:

-- The National Association of School Psychologists
-- Caring for Kids after Trauma and Death: A guide for parents and professionals from The Institute for Trauma and Stress at The NYU Child Study Center
-- The American School Counselors Association

Copyright 2012

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