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Trauma and Recovery: Tips for Talking with Children about the Connecticut School Tragedy

Steve_berkowitz2Steven Berkowitz, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and an associate professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine. He is also the director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery. The Center was founded in 2009 in order to offer the most effective treatments for children, adolescents, and their families who are suffering from symptoms of traumatic stress and other difficulties after exposure to violence, crime, and abuse.

In this blog post, Berkowitz outlines some strategies for helping children and teens process their feelings in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

“For the children who were present at the school or knew those directly affected, special interventions and additional resources will need to be used to help them cope, but many kids in the general community also may need help getting through this confusing and sad time,” Berkowitz says.

He advises parents to start a dialogue around the event. Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in a child’s mind. With news and social media funneling information about the shooting 24 hours a day, it is unlikely that they haven’t heard about it. 

Start by asking what they already have heard about the events from the media and from friends and correct any inaccurate information they may have picked up. Encourage the child to ask questions, and answer those questions directly. One way to reassure them is to point out the quick response by law enforcement and medical personnel to help the victims. This may help the child see that there can be good, even in the midst of such a horrific event.

At the same time, Berkowitz recommends reducing children’s exposure to media as much as possible to limit images and sounds relating to the violence. If they do see a report on the news on the event, turn off the TV and use that as an opportunity to ask them how they are feeling.

Younger children, under 6 years of age or so, should not watch or listen to the news. Young children often don’t understand that the repeated events on TV are not actually happening all over again. It is best for caregivers to tell them what happened and to reassure them that it is the caregivers’ job to make sure that they are safe.

“Consider sharing your own feelings about the shooting with child, but at a level they can understand,” he says. “Expressing sadness and empathy for the victims and their families will help them learn that it’s okay to share their feelings with too.”

Berkowitz says common reactions to a tragedy like this may include problems paying attention and concentrating. Some kids may become more irritable or defiant. Children and even teens may have trouble separating from caregivers, wanting to stay at home or close by them.

“It’s common for young people to feel anxious about what has happened, what may happen in the future, and how it will impact their lives. Their sleep and appetite routines may change. But in general, these reactions will lessen within a few weeks.”

If reactions continue after a month or at any point interfere with the child’s abilities to function, Berkowitz recommends contacting your family doctor or a local mental health professional who has expertise in trauma. Additional resources for parents and families are available through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

In a video interview with WTXF FOX 29, Berkowitz discusses additional information about the psychological ramifications of the school shooting.

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