In the aftermath of recent shootings and civil unrest, it can be difficult for children (and grown-ups) to concentrate or attend to daily life. In families, keep in mind that adults set the tone for children and help to model healthy responses. The following steps are suggested in helping yourself, your child(ren) and your family heal and to buffer the psychological and physiological impact of toxic stress that ensues subsequent to traumatic situations such as community violence, shootings, or other forms of domestic terrorism.
1) Turn off the television. Unplug from your computer or smartphone – protect yourself from additional traumatization by television and radio media as well as social media exposure. This is true for all of us – although we want to have more information about events, the images, misinformation, and media sensationalizing are contributing to increased anxiety in mainstream society. Fear permeates our consciousness. For those with prior histories of trauma, the impact of disturbing images and messages in the media can be even more traumatic, given the cumulative effect of trauma and adversity. If you really need to know, use a reputable news station, or consider having one family member obtain the information to relay to others. Do not allow your children (especially young children) to watch or listen to any programming involving the shootings.
2) Stay connected - to people. The largest buffer to physiological and psychological impact of stressful situations is having adequate social support. Be with your loved ones. Hug your children longer. Plan more family activities and playdates. Reach out to friends. Turn off the news feeds on your phone, but pick up the phone and call someone.
3) Talk about it. Find out what your children know – and the source of this information. It is possible that they have misinformation or distorted thinking about the events. Not discussing it can worsen the psychological effects in your child’s mind. If they have incorrect information, gently correct any distortions in terms that are age-appropriate. Give children the opportunity to ask questions.
4) Expect a range of emotions – anxiety, sadness, anger, confusion – coupled with behavioral responses: irritability, sleep and appetite problems, defiance, clingy behavior, and other reactions. These are common. Give your family time to heal and recover.
5) To the extent possible, get back to normal. Laugh and play. Continue with the usual family rituals and routines (e.g., books at bedtime). Try to encourage your family to be active – take walks, exercise together, hit the playground or the bike trail. Routines and rituals can be calming amidst chaos and exercise can greatly reduce stress and anxiety for everyone.
6) Reassure everyone that they are safe and loved. Sometimes, children may have thoughts, “you never know when someone could come into your neighborhood, home, school, etc., and start shooting.” While this statement is accurate, it is not helpful. A more accurate and helpful thought would be “people are doing everything they can do to make sure our homes, communities, schools are safe” or “shootings like this are extremely rare” or “we have skills we can use to keep ourselves safe.” This is also a time for extra nurturance and love – it is not unusual for children to seek out extra physical affection and want to be close to you.
7) Practice family safety plans. If you don’t have a realistic safety plan for use in your home and with your family for emergencies outside of the home, now is a good time to develop one.
8) Acknowledge the helpers. Point out those who are trying to help, community “heroes,” and those who are trying to keep people safe. Even in the scariest and darkest of times, there are always helpers and heroes --- acknowledging the helpers reassures children.
9) Seek additional help, when needed. If time has passed and your children are still struggling with anxiety or having other symptoms that are not typical for them or are not decreasing with time (e.g., nightmares, prolonged sadness, withdrawal, behavioral outbursts), seek help in the form of a child and family therapist or child psychologist skilled in providing trauma-focused treatment.
For more additional information and helpful resources, see www.nctsn.org