By Margaret Hennessy, MD, pediatrician with Wheaton Franciscan Medical Group in Racine.
I am very saddened by the recent shooting in Newtown, and as I write this, I find it hard to find the right words. But like many of you, I am a parent and I must help my family cope with this. And that is the real issue for many of us who are not living in Sandy Hook or do not have family or friends that lost loved ones in this tragedy. Together, many of us are struggling over how we deal with this. Because regardless of how close we are to the event, it does affect us, too.
My colleague, Dr. Michael Cichy, PhD, is a psychologist with Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare who shares that in times of death and tragedy, adults should not be afraid to express their own emotions about grief.
“If you repress your feelings, your children will more likely suppress their own emotions. Children receive permission to mourn from adults,” says Dr. Cichy. “Take the words ‘death ‘ and ‘die’ off the taboo list, and allow them to become concepts that can be discussed openly.”
It’s important to recognize that your response to your children about this tragic event will depend on their age.
Very small children in the early toddler years will likely not understand any of this. They should not be watching the news reports and are likely unaware of what happened. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, television is not recommended for children under two years of age. This is even more important now when the news stories interrupt normal programming. Little ones may pick up on a parent being upset and crying. This may alarm them. There is no need to explain why you are sad, but certainly reveal that you are sad and you are going to be OK. Share that it is OK to cry when you are sad.
Preschoolers and early grade school-aged children may be catching some of this on television, or in hearing adult conversations. As a pediatrician, I would recommend you do not let them watch or listen to news stories on the topic. Even if they are not directly watching the TV, they will pick up on some of this, and they are at an age where it is difficult to process it, especially if the victims involved are approximately of the same age. This is a great time to promote a “TV-free time” in your home. If you have young children who are exposed to the story, turn off the TV or radio and talk with them. Ask them if they have questions. Ask your children what they know about the shooting. Try to correct any misinformation that they may have. Do not feel the need to give them extra details about the shooting. Realistically, your child is not expecting them. Above all, remind your child that he or she is safe. The “bad guy” cannot hurt them. They want to know if they are going to be OK.
Older children and teens will probably hear about what happened in Newtown — especially if your child is on the internet or using social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc). I would also encourage them to turn off their electronics. I would also recommend being more straightforward about the situation and ask them what they are thinking. Find out what they know. See if you can correct any misinformation that they may have. You may also notice some behavior changes in your young adult.
“Numbness, denial, panic, anger, measurable changes in play tendencies, eating and sleeping habits, and physical illness are variations in a child’s toolbox of non-verbal expression of emotional pain,” Dr. Cichy adds. “It is important that we understand that mourning and sadness are appropriate emotional experiences for people of all ages, and we need to remember children are people.”
Children may experience some regression, such as old fears of the dark or old behaviors, like thumb sucking. Sometimes children will act out because they cannot explain why they feel bad. For most children, these reactions will lessen over the next few weeks. You have to encourage them to continue with their normal routine. The fear will subside. However, for some children this event can trigger more serious anxieties. If that begins to interfere with their ability to go to school, to play at a friend’s house, to enjoy activities, or to even function at home then ask for help from a mental health professional.
If your child is not interested in discussing what’s happened, then let them know you are there to listen, and encourage them to talk about it later if they want. Your child may not be revealing much at first, but make sure that they feel safe to discuss feelings at another time. Your child may have nothing to say on the subject but that does not mean that they are not hurting. Keep touching base with your child. And don’t forget to give assurance of love and support. One of the most meaningful contributions that parents can offer a child during the child’s grieving is themselves. Physical demonstrations of love and support are among the greatest comforts to a grieving child.
“As a parent, your care and concern over the next months and year will be of inestimable value in aiding recovery,” says Dr. Cichy.
And remember, it is OK to show your emotions during this time, and you can show your children how you handle these feelings in a constructive way. Help children draw pictures or write down ideas. If you believe in prayer, then pray as a family. Talk about what good you can do for others around you. Empower your child to feel that they can make this world a better place. Show your children how people help out other people that are hurting or in need. Find out if there are things that you can do for those people that are directly impacted by the tragedy.
All of us will face bad things in our life and we need to find a way to cope with them. The pain will lessen no matter how close we are to the event. There is still good in this world. Help your child discover that.