Caring for Self and Others When Faced with Trauma
In the wake of yet another school shooting, it is difficult to think of anything else. We see the news coverage and the social media debates and calls to action. We feel sad and angry and lost and helpless. Even for adults, these feelings can be overwhelming and lead to anxiety and depression. Imagine how children or teens may feel when faced with such traumatic experiences. How can we care for the children and teens in our lives as well as ourselves and process traumatic events in the news? How can we help them feel safe when we aren't sure they are safe and may not feel safe ourselves? How can we equip ourselves and our children to cope and continue?
I have discussed talking to children about disasters in a previous post, and while many of those tips work for other types of trauma, scary events in the news are different. Natural disasters are scary, especially when they hit close to home; however, there is typically an end to the event and recovery can take a specific path. Parents can assure their children that the flood or tornado or fire is gone, and that they will rebuild and go on. With school and other mass shootings, the path forward is less clear. When the traumatic event didn't happen to the child or in their town, the fear is harder to pin down and address. It is easy to dismiss a child and say, "That won't happen at your school. You'll be fine." Or, in the opposite direction, it is tempting to pass your own anxieties about your child to them when they don't actually feel anxious. So what can we do to sensibly and calmly prepare and care for ourselves and our children?
Listen Intently, Answer Questions
Even though it may be difficult, especially in the immediate aftermath, talk to your children. Ask them about their thoughts and feelings, and let them ask you questions. You may be more fearful than they are because you are able to think about possibilities they are not. They may be feeling very anxious but show it in ways that aren't obvious. They may try to avoid school, have difficulty sleeping, or show volatile emotions that are out of character. They may put on a brave face when they are really hurting. And they may, really and truly feel fine and safe. The only way to know for sure is to talk to them and to listen to what they say. Answer their questions in an age appropriate way. Giving young children too much detail can be detrimental, but older children and teens may want to know as much information as is available. In general, even with something horrific, a teen can handle whatever information they ask for. Some may find comfort in knowing the details. Don't be surprised if questions come in waves.
Limit Exposure to Media
In today's media-soaked world, we know things almost as soon as they happen. Mass shootings, in particular, are communicated quickly and often from people who are experiencing them in real time. Limit exposure to unfiltered media. Especially photos, videos, and audio recordings of victims as these transport the viewer to the scene in a way that a story about the event does not. Be careful when choosing which news outlets to view, and don't leave coverage on all the time. News showing the same video over and over may lead a child to believe the event is still happening when it has actually been resolved.
Also limit social media. With the controversy surrounding various perceived causes of mass shootings, social media quickly becomes inflammatory and can lead to increased negative emotions and knee-jerk reactions. Engaging in healthy debate can be helpful at times, but know when to walk away. If you feel changes in your body such as heart palpitations, rising blood pressure, or stomach pains or uncontrollable emotional responses such as crying, leave the debate for another day. Take a break.
One potential way to relieve anxiety surrounding traumatic experiences is prepare in whatever ways we can for how we may respond in a similar situation. Discuss what tools your child may already have or if there are any ways they think they might respond. Many schools conduct intruder, lockdown, or active shooter drills. It is important to know what your child has experienced and how they perceive these drills. Especially with young children, you may need to ask them what they are called as some schools have code names such as Code Red or a specific name meaningful only to the school personnel and kids. Some children find the drills themselves traumatizing, and some teachers and parents have noted a fear that they may do more harm than good; however, the goal is to train children to follow directions and remain as calm as possible, generally hiding from an intruder and remaining quiet. Drills serve the purpose of communicating an organized plan by teaching kids to leave possessions behind and follow the directions of their teacher or administrator. Teaching children ways to keep the school safe such as reporting strangers on campus, not letting strangers into the school, and reporting threats they may hear or see on social media to administration or the police can also empower them to look for warning signs.
For older children and teens who may have phones, give them an idea of what they should do in the event of an emergency situation. For example, call authorities, text or call you, or send an SOS call from their phone if they are in a position to safely do so. For younger children, the CDC offers a "Backpack Emergency Card" and other emergency preparedness information that might be helpful if an emergency occurs during the school day when they are away from you.
Seek Professional Help If Needed
Sometimes, feelings surrounding traumatic events are too strong to cope with alone. Seeking professional counseling may be helpful if anxiety or other negative emotions overwhelm you or someone in your care. A school counselor or other mental health professional can offer tools to help you cope with trauma or process experiences.
Most of all, be patient with yourself and those around you. The process of coping with traumatic events, even when we are not directly involved, is different for everyone. Some people cope internally and others need to vent or discuss their feelings with others. You may feel fine and then suddenly be reminded of an event through exposure to media or other trigger, and feel all the same emotions you felt when you first learned about it.