a letter from Nancy Burgoyne, Chief Clinical Officer
Recent events in Florida have again put in front of us an outrageous scene of senseless violence. Violence in schools, once unimaginable, has become a disturbingly frequent event. As individuals, and certainly as caregivers for children of all ages, we grapple with how to respond. We wonder — what is an appropriate way to feel and what are helpful ways to behave under these circumstances?
While there is no right way to feel, there are helpful ways to respond.
Adults are well advised to attend to their own experience.
Violence is terribly disturbing for people of all ages. Parents and grandparents may feel especially helpless and fearful as they send their children out into the world.
Violent events in our society have occurred more frequently and our exposure to them is more vivid and intrusive. Many have come to feel desensitized or "numbed." Others report feeling shocked or full of anger, fear or great sadness. Others experience some or all of these. It is unhelpful to judge how you or others feel. Greet your feelings with self-compassion. Once you have observed and honored your experience, gently re-direct your attention to another engaging activity.
Take news breaks
It is important to limit the amount of time spent exposed to disturbing news. Notice what type of information (print or images, for example) that you are best able to absorb and which are more unsettling. While exposure to anxiety provoking stimuli can be helpful and necessary if we want or need to engage in a behavior that frightens us, extensive exposure to news events that we cannot control, however, is not helpful.
Think of this as stress
When events that are extreme or out of the ordinary occur, we often fail to recognize them as a source of excess stress. While there is no universally effective stress reduction technique, high quality sleep and effective planning are generally helpful ways to offset the effects. Set priorities and work on simple problems first. This may reduce a sense of helplessness. Your usual stress relieving strategies will also help. What works for you? Exercise? Time in nature?
Give and receive social support
Social and emotional support is an important protective factor for coping. Make time for friends and family. If you're there for others, they'll be more likely to be there for you. In fact, research suggests that providing social support may be even more important than receiving it.
Help children manage their distress.
Children look to their caregivers to help them feel safe. This remains true no matter your child's age.
Talk to your children
Behavioral health care providers who work in the area of trauma and recovery advise parents to use the news of school shootings as an opportunity to talk and listen to their children. Young children may communicate their fears through play or drawings. Elementary school children will likely use a combination of play and talking to express themselves. Adolescents are more likely to communicate their feelings and fears verbally. Parents should acknowledge to children that bad things do happen, but also reassure children that the adults in their lives are doing everything they can to make their environment — school, home and neighborhood — safe for them.
Make home a safe and reliable place
Children, regardless of age, look to home to be a safe haven when the world around them feels overwhelming. During times of crisis, it is important to remember that your children come home seeking a safe feeling. Help make home a place where your children can find the solitude or comfort they need. Maintain your usual routines. The predictability that comes from structure can be reassuring. And tune into opportunities to offer extra affection and attention — you are the best source of soothing for your child.
Limit exposure to news coverage
Children are even more vulnerable to the effects of media coverage than adults. Parents should monitor how much exposure a child has to news reports of traumatic events, including school shootings. Research has shown that some young children believe that the events are reoccurring each time they see a television replay of the news footage.
Watch for changes in mood or behavior
When children see or hear news of a school shooting on television or on the internet, it hits close to home. It is natural for them to worry about their own school and their own safety, especially if the violence occurred nearby. As with adults, it is typical for children to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your children's behaviors may change in response to the event. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating on school work or changes in appetite. Most children will return to their normal activities and personality relatively quickly. Caregivers, however, should be alert to signs that suggest that a child or teenager might need more assistance. Such indicators could be a persistent change in the child's school performance, changes in relationships with peers and teachers, excessive worry, school refusal, sleeplessness, nightmares, headaches or stomachaches or loss of interest in activities that the child used to enjoy.
If you are concerned that your response to recent events or your child's has become unmanageable, or if you would like more individualized guidance in how to best respond to the troubling times we face, the clinicians at The Family Institute are here to help. We respect and understand our clients in the context of the events and relationships that impact their lives. Our highly-qualified clinicians are members of collaborative teams who embrace continuous learning and a compassionate world view. We are your partner on the path to greater well-being.
Nancy Burgoyne, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer
The Family Institute at Northwestern University