The children will listen. But what should you tell them after the Texas school massacre?

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In the aftermath of the horrific mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvelda, Texas, the trauma extends to all parents and children. What bereaved families are going through is unimaginable pain. The horrific and senseless loss of life also arouses fears in all of us, especially parents and their children. We spoke with Katie Hurley, LCSW, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, Parent Educator, and Everyday Health Contributor, about how to address children’s fears and cope as an adult.

Everyday Health: How do you tell your kids about such a horrific incident that they’ve probably heard about from others or on TV?

Katie Hurley: The key to talking to children through this is to communicate relational safety by listening to their fears and co-regulating their responses. This means that parents must first deal with their own feelings to overcome their stress over this tragic event. If your kids come to you with things they’ve heard, ask them to tell you what they know. Provide simple, age-appropriate facts.

If tweens and teens (and even elementary school students) use Snapchat, TikTok, or Instagram, they may see conflicting, inaccurate, or incomplete information. Stick to the facts to answer their questions. It’s okay to say you don’t know the answer. Take a family break from social media, games with chat features and news. Nothing good comes from repeated exposure to information about a tragedy.

EH: How do you find a balance between being aware and safe and being afraid?

KH: First, reassure your children that it’s natural to be scared and anxious when things like this happen. Give them space to sit down and work through their emotions without trying to fix their feelings. They need space to verbalize their thoughts and mourn their sense of security.

Second, talk about their school’s safety measures and what their school and community are doing to keep children as safe as possible. Knowing how to find aids gives children a sense of comfort. If they feel overwhelmed, slow down and spend some time together. Put down your devices and focus on comfort and connection.

EH: For children who were present or who heard the news, how do you spot the signs of trauma and what should be done?

KH: There are no rules regarding mourning. This is a personal experience and children can experience a variety of symptoms immediately after a tragic event or later once they have had time to process. Some symptoms of trauma can mimic symptoms of depression, including trouble sleeping, changes in eating habits, and increased anger or irritability. It’s also important to watch for symptoms of anxiety, including heightened fear response, persistent worry, intrusive thoughts, separation anxiety, and regressive behavior.

When a tragic event is closely related to school, children may engage in school refusal.

EH: What services are available for traumatized youth and parents?

KH: There is no specific timeline for healing from trauma. Be patient. Even with treatment in place, children may experience gains and losses throughout the event. It is important to seek care from a licensed mental health clinician (psychologist, social worker, marriage and family therapist) trained in trauma-informed care.

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TFCBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), narrative exposure therapy, play therapy, and art therapy are all appropriate options to treat trauma and develop coping skills.

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