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Thoughts on the School Shooting in Newtown CT

erinwaybrain — Dr. Erin Way, psychology

It has taken me several days to emerge from the shock I experienced when I heard about the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday.  I cannot imagine the grief that each family feels as they mourn the loss of their loved ones.  My affiliation with elementary schools began with my mother, who was a full time kindergarten teacher for 30+ years and continues to substitute in elementary schools to this day.  I think the aspect of this tragedy that is affected me the most, is the loss of innocence and certain safety. No child, especially a young child, should have to question their security while at school. 

In my field, we spend a lot of time examining the obstacles that many children face as they try to learn and master academic and life skills.  Although poverty, unstable home environments, unpredictability in physiological and psychological/ emotional care are all important factors that can have a negative impact on a child’s ability to succeed, somehow this event seems worse.  I suppose it is because not every child has to worry about living in poverty, or an unstable home environment, or unpredictability of care… but now EVERY CHILD has to go to school knowing that this can happen.  I know there is great political divide in this country regarding gun control and mental health treatment.  I have some thoughts on these topics, but for now I am uniting with all Americans to say… WE HAVE TO COME TOGETHER AND DO SOMETHING!  If we can address some of the issues that contribute to these events and reduce future occurrences… we can leave future generations with a more peaceful country and world.

I also want to make sure all caretakers of young children realize the importance of talking to your children and addressing their fears and questions while sheltering young children as much as possible from the media coverage of these events.  Often, young children have difficulty understanding that the repeated clips of the event are just that. Instead, young children may think that the event keeps happening over and over again each time they see the footage.  The most important ideas to communicate to children are: it is okay to have feelings about this and there is no wrong feeling, it is okay to ask questions and talk about what happened, and they are safe.

The best way to determine what your children are ready to talk about is to ask what they know or have heard about the event and what questions they have.  Remember to be age appropriate but honest with children – that includes discussion of death.  Sometimes, we want to use metaphors for death like: “He is in a really deep sleep that he can’t wake up from” or “She is in a place where we can’t touch her” in an effort to protect our children.  Young children may misunderstand these metaphors and be afraid to go to sleep or allow a parent to leave the room. 

Finally, be aware that children sometimes cope with stressful events by regressing and engaging in behaviors they did when younger, including having toileting accidents, wanting to be held or sleep in a parent’s bed, sucking a thumb,  sleeping with a blanket or toy they haven’t needed for a while, even playing with toys they have outgrown. 

Here is a link to more information about helping young children deal with traumatic events: Young Children and Trauma