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

Steve_berkowitz2StevenBerkowitz, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and an associate professorof Clinical Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine. He is also thedirector 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 treatmentsfor children, adolescents and their families who are suffering from symptoms oftraumatic stress and other difficulties after exposure to violence, crime andabuse.

In thisblog post, Dr. Berkowitz outlines some strategies for helping children andteens process their feelings in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

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

Headvises parents to start a dialogue around the event.  Not talking about it can make the event evenmore threatening in a child’s mind. With news and social media funnelinginformation about the shooting 24 hours a day, it is unlikely that they haven’theard about it. 

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

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

Youngerchildren, 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 actuallyhappening all over again. It is best, for caregivers to tell them what happened andto reassure them that it is the caregivers’ job to make sure that they aresafe.

“Considersharing your own feelings about the shooting with child, but at a level theycan understand,” he says.  “Expressingsadness and empathy for the victims and their families will help them learnthat it’s ok to share their feelings with too.”

Dr. Berkowitz sayscommon reactions to a tragedy like this may include problems paying attentionand concentrating. Some kids may become more irritable or defiant. Children andeven teens may have trouble separating from caregivers, wanting to stay at homeor close by them.

“It’scommon for young people to feel anxious about what has happened, what mayhappen in the future, and how it will impact their lives. Their sleep andappetite routines may change. But in general, these reactions will lessenwithin a few weeks.”

Ifreactions continue after a month or at any point interfere with the child’sabilities to function, he recommends contacting your family doctor or a localmental health professional who has expertise in trauma.

Additionalresources for parents and families are available through the National ChildTraumatic Stress Network at www.nctsn.org.

In a video interview below, Dr. Berkowitzdiscusses additional information about the psychological ramifications of the school shooting.

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