Published: Dec. 17, 2012
Updated: Dec. 17, 2012
The horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT has left parents and children grappling with many emotions as they try to make sense of the senseless tragedy.
“These types of events trigger all of our fears,” says John Fairbank, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center and co-director of the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. As a result, parents may feel confused, anxious or even helpless, while children may be frightened of what they have overheard. These are normal responses in the aftermath of such a horrific tragedy.
“It’s very important for parents to realize that schools remain one of the safest places your child can be,” says Fairbank who points to evidence that supports the prevalence of school safety. “School violence has decreased annually for the past few years.”
Seek reassurance by talking to administrators at your child’s school about their safety plans and become more knowledgeable about their emergency procedures. In as calm a tone as possible, make sure your child is aware of what he or she should do in an emergency. Likewise, now is a good time to review your family’s emergency communication strategy or create a plan if you haven’t already.
If you’re feeling anxious, Fairbank suggests parents turn to family members, friends or people with whom they have a trusting relationship for support. Children should not be part of those conversations unless they are asking questions or appear to be seeking answers.
“If your child has a question about what happened, it’s important to have a developmentally appropriate answer prepared,” says George S. Ake III, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Duke’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. If you sense your child has heard about the tragedy, gently probe to get a sense of their knowledge and whether they need to talk. With news of the tragedy proliferating on Facebook and twitter, it’s likely that older children may know more than they are letting on and might be afraid to express their concerns.
Parents and children should keep media exposure to a minimum, including social media where an outpouring of emotions over many of the issues related to this tragedy are filling news feeds. Fairbank says long-term research shows that reading and watching too many negative news reports has a detrimental impact on psychological and physical health.
Finally, Fairbank recommends people “give the Newtown community a little time” before sending donations or trying to help. “Wanting to help is a natural reaction,” he says, as is feeling helpless in the face of such a horrific tragedy. But right now, the wounds are still raw; the mourning period has just started and efforts to respond to donations are just being mobilized.
“Nobody wants to add to the stress and strain the people of the community are experiencing by sending things they are not prepared to accept,” he says. Rather, allow time for the community to come together so that a more coordinated charitable effort can be established.