Deputy Director of The Guidance Center of Weschester Dinorah Nieves, Ph.D., answers common questions that adults have about their reactions and those of their children regarding the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. There are helpful links to outside resources at the end of the article.
“I talked about Sandy Hook with my 8-year- old child, but she doesn’t seem to care at all...is there something wrong with her?”
Everyone has different reactions and response times to trauma. Some may react immediately in a way that you will clearly see (crying, being clingy, wanting to stay home) and others may take days or weeks to react or may react in a way that is more subtle (moodiness, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite). In some cases, “not caring at all” is actually a coping strategy that a person uses to protect herself from the negative feelings that a situation brings out. Very young children tend to have delayed reactions, so a parent might not notice concerning behaviors for up to six weeks. At that point, as adults we may have already moved on (so to speak). We don’t connect the dots that our child’s regression to bedwetting, for example, is a reaction to the trauma or stress the child experienced weeks ago.
What’s important to keep in mind is that there is no wrong or right reaction. Everyone processes things differently. As a parent, the best thing you can do is provide opportunities and ways for your child to express her feelings and be accessible to when she is ready. That can be through asking about her drawings, encouraging her to write in a journal, having family dinner discussions, etc. – whatever works for you and your child.
“I asked my teen-age son if anyone at school made him worry. He told me about another boy who has no friends, doesn’t talk to other kids and seems like an outsider…kind of how the media is portraying the shooter. Should I tell the school? It’s not really my business.”
Has your son ever reached out to say hello to the student or otherwise tried to engage him? Not every child who fits that profile is destined to be a school shooter. Nor does it mean that a child who is quiet and has few friends has any issues at all. But, yes, you should tell a school counselor about your child’s concerns. Keep it to facts, not any kind of judgment or interpretation, so that school staff can be aware and look into it, if necessary. Please keep in mind that you’re not entitled to know if the school already has any type of intervention in place or if they do anything as a result of your conversation. It is, however, important that you don’t ignore a possible red flag and that your child feels safe in his school.
“I don't know anyone who was personally affected in the shootings and, yet, I was so worried about my own children all day today. What is wrong with me? Why does this seem so close to me? Will it stop?”
Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, is a common experience for individuals who are exposed to the impact that a traumatic event had on others. In this case, we are all affected through our exposure to media. It’s nearly impossible to get away from the coverage – it’s on the television, radio, newspaper, computer, phone, everywhere! It can feel like we are living through it with that community, even though we really aren’t. So, we may react and feel similarly to how we would feel if the trauma were directly impacting us. As a parent, you may also be identifying with the families of those children who died. It can bring about feelings of sadness or loss for those who have gone; fear for and attachment to those who remain; and even feelings of guilt around surviving. It’s natural to feel this way, especially so soon after the events of December 14. Take deep breaths if you start to feel pressured; talk to someone you know you can trust and won’t judge you; create lists of things for which you are grateful; take part in activity which you enjoy. If the sadness, fear or anger gets in the way of your daily life activities, seek out professional help.
“My child has ADHD and asked me if he is going to end up like that man who shot everyone. He said that he doesn’t want to be like that.”
One in 10 children suffers from a diagnosable mental illness. The fact that you and your son have decided to seek help and are already addressing his mental health needs is a very important step in ensuring that he will lead a healthy and productive life. Please keep in mind that a person is much more than his or her diagnosis. A psychiatric diagnosis is something that professionals use to help better understand what interventions and therapies may work best with which people. That’s all it is. It is not a definite predictor of someone’s potential. It simply identifies those who need more support and the type of support they may need. Work with your child on making sure that you and the other adults in his life have an accurate understanding of what supports your child needs to increase his likelihood of success. The hard work is being diligent in making sure that those needs are met. But that hard work can make all the difference.
“I find myself wondering about Lanza and thinking that life must have been difficult for him and his family. Then, I feel guilty because I feel like I’m siding with “the bad guy.” What’s wrong with me that I feel sorry for everyone, even the shooter and his family?”
Empathy is void of judgment. We are conditioned to break down a situation like this into black and white terms: good vs. bad; hero vs. villain; right vs. wrong. But life is much more grey. These sorts of situations are so tragic that every story evokes sympathy, even that of the shooter. Obviously, we all mourn with the children and families who were affected; our hearts break with them. But there is something about the kid who was such an outsider, who was unable to talk or relate to others, who was described as so smart, that makes us wonder about how life may have been for him. Compassion for the shooter does not negate or undermine our compassion for those who died and their families. Instead, that sense of universal compassion humanizes us, unites us and moves us toward healing.
The above information is not meant to replace a consultation with a mental health professional. If you feel that you or a member of your family can use support, contact us: 914-613-0705 (This is not a crisis line. If you are having an emergency, call 911).
Dr. Nieves spent nearly a decade working with inner-city youth in violence prevention programs before joining The Guidance Center of Westchester, where she currently works as deputy director. She is a certified clinical sociologist, mediator and life coach with Ph.D. from Fordham University.