Today’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut has impacted Americans throughout the United States. Sources have identified the shooter as 20-year-old Adam Lanza; clad in military gear, he gunned down his mother and her entire class at the elementary school. Officials at the scene note that Lanza was found dead inside the school. A total of 27 people were killed, including 20 children.
The tragic event impacted children at the school either directly or indirectly and is bound to have an effect on children throughout the US who become aware of the incident. It is extremely important for parents to deal appropriately with the impact of traumatic events such as this upon their children. To receive input regarding proper parental handling of traumatic events to children, I consulted with Margaret Stuber, MD, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry
At Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA. Although shooting events are more common at high schools, Dr. Stuber notes that her first experience with traumatic stress in children occurred in a shooting incident at an elementary school. She added that the shooter is typically an outsider who may have a relationship with someone at the school or someone who merely has a violent hatred of children.
Dr. Stuber notes that the most important thing for a parent to do when dealing with the child is to not fall apart or become hysterical. It is appropriate to express sadness and even cry; however, losing control and breaking down, can negatively impact the child. Even if the parent is grieving or frightened, he or she must reassure their child that he or she is safe. It is also important to not pretend that nothing happened. Some children may want to talk about the event while others may choose to not talk about it. Dr. Stuber notes that children often bring up the traumatic events at inopportune times such as while driving to school or shopping in the supermarket. She suggests that if this occurs, it is best to tell the child that they will talk about it later. An appropriate time is at bedtime.
Dr. Stuber explains that children exposed to a traumatic event fall into three categories: (1) Those that witnessed the event either by being in the line of fire or were injured; (2) Those who are grieving because they knew somebody who was harmed or killed; and (3) Those who are just aware of the event. She notes that the third group is the easiest to work with. Not uncommonly, the parents may be unaware that their child is suffering from traumatic stress. Parents must be aware of signs that the child is affected because they express grief differently than adults. Signs include irritability, lack of attentiveness, regressive behavior (even shutting down), loss of appetite, and sleep problems, including nightmares.
Dr. Stuber notes that shutting off the TV or avoiding discussion of a traumatic event is not helpful. Exposure to graphic images such as crying children or wounded/dead individuals being carried out should be avoided. It is important to portray a calm image because children readily pick up on parental stress. She notes that the event should not be dwelled upon; however it should be discussed with the child at a level appropriate for his or her age and all questions answered: the younger, the child, the simpler the explanation. She notes that children aged 11 or older are able to pick up the subtleties of a situation; thus, a high-level discussion may be appropriate. Children aged 8-10 often ask “tons of questions.” These questions should be answered in terms that they can understand. Children aged 6-9 are very concrete; thus, the questions must be answered honestly but in simple terms. Avoid euphemisms such as “Jimmy fell asleep,” merely state that the boy died. If you use the term “fell asleep,” your child may be afraid to go to sleep at night.
Dr. Stuber stresses that it is extremely important to not pretend that nothing happened or lie about the incident. She notes that some children may express “revenge fantasies’ and make statements such as, “I want to rip his guts out.” If that occurs, it is important to tell the child that they are not a bad person for having such thoughts because it is only natural to have such feelings.