Helping Children Who are Traumatized: The Newtown, Connecticut Shootings

Once again, our nation has been shocked by a tragic shooting. Twenty children and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut lost their lives before the gunman turned the weapon on himself. Prior to the shooting spree at the school the gunman shot his mother. Clearly, issues are yet to be discovered as to why this tragic event occurred.

Tragedy, trauma and how to help others

Newtown, CT Shooting incident aftermath.
Newtown, CT Shooting incident aftermath. Photo courtesy of

Tragic incidences leave us in shock, numb with grief and loss. To think of 20 families who lost their first grade child is overwhelming. To hear the stories of teachers who attempted to protect their students is inspiring, but it is devastating that they even had to experience such horror.  

A reality that occurs as a result of trauma is confusion: what our children will be thinking and feeling about such  tragedy is unfortunate and can be traumatizing. Unlike adults, children do not have logic as intact as adults; thus, their conclusions may not be the same. That is, all kinds of questions plus things that are heard off the cuff may sway a child’s thinking, but it is important to recognize that children will not process these events with the reasoning of an adult. 

In fact, children often create inaccurate and imaginary thinking. In the face of a tragedy like this one, a child may imagine that a gunman could be coming to his home, school or other public place and shoot everyone in the room. It would be easy to see how very quickly a child could conclude that he would not feel safe in any part of his world.

8 Ways to work through trauma and help children feel safe

It is important that caregivers of children are prepared for all manner of discussion. 

Diane Wagenhals is a colleague of mine at Lakeside Educational Network. Using her research and publications about helping children who have been traumatized, I thought I would focus on some important points.

  • First, it is pertinent that caregivers recognize their own feelings of loss, grief, fear or terror. (If we are unaware of our own feelings and processes we may not be ready to have a discussion with a child.)
  • Caregivers should provide as many opportunities as needed for children to express their thoughts and feelings.
  • Caregivers should use our H.U.G. approach when processing with children. (This means that you will be careful to hear, understand and give back the child’s statements about how they feel and what their perceptions are about the event.  Restating the child’s statement or feelings help them identify what is truly going on and gives us a baseline for truth in helping them deal with their perceptions and fears.)
  • Do not say things like “you shouldn’t feel like that,” or “that’s silly!”  (We should never minimize anyone’s thoughts and feelings in any way.)
  • Find opportunities to reassure, build, strengthen and nurture your children.  Here are some ways to do that.Talk about the heroes in the story and explain their qualities. (Also help them identify who the heroes are in their own lives who would let nothing happen to them.)
      • Talk about their faith and God’s love and protection.
      • Role-model ways to respond.
      • Show the child how he/she can make a difference.
      • Help them write a letter to the families who had the losses, or to the school.
  • Do not allow them to see the images on television, or pictures of the victims, or families crying, or other fear-based videos.
  • Talk to them about children they know who are angry, are bullies or seem to be isolated, and help them understand how they may be able to get help for such an individual.
  • Be aware of the fact that such a tragic event may continue on a recurring basis to trigger thoughts, dreams and perspectives that may be fear-based.  

There are many other resources to look at, so feel free to find good information that will help you care for your children. Above are some basic but quite useful points that may help our children get through this crisis.

Tragedy sparks many needs to raise awareness

Tragedy evokes time when we as families, communities and a nation should raise awareness to help children who are experiencing trauma, mental illness, bullying and isolation. 

We also need to pray for the families of all those who were victimized by this tragedy. My thoughts and prayers are with all of those families who have been devastated by what has occurred in Newtown, Connecticut. 

It seems these shootings are occurring more regularly, which means we need to be proactive and intentional about how we are going to protect our children physically, relationally and emotionally. 

This is a time to be sober and vigilant about our societal role of keeping our children safe. 

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network.

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