Navigating Tragedies: Helping Ourselves and Our Children
By Dr. Joseph Sharpe, Chief Medical Officer of Ascension Saint Thomas Behavioral Health Hospital
The Effects of Trauma
As news of the shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, spread throughout the country, we could not help but mourn alongside the families that were affected by the tragedy.
Experiencing negative physical, emotional and psychological effects after living through a traumatic event is normal. They are natural reactions to unnatural events.
The way people process trauma will be unique to each individual. There are also times when a person’s reaction to a traumatic event can present as symptoms of a mental health concern like depression or various types of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety, social anxiety and separation anxiety. Some people may also begin to have panic attacks or develop phobias.
It is not uncommon for someone who experienced a traumatic event to fear leaving their house or to feel nervous in crowds. They may withdraw from family and friends or stop participating in activities they once enjoyed. They might experience intense feelings of apprehension when they have to attend to obligations like going to work. It is also common for people who have suffered through a traumatic event to experience overwhelming feelings of sadness as well as an ongoing sense of paranoia.
It is imperative to know that these are common responses to trauma. If you find yourself or your child experiencing any of these negative effects, please know that you are not alone. You are having a normal response to a situation you could never have imagined being in.
Yet, while these are natural reactions, it is important that they are addressed. They should not be seen as symptoms that will simply pass over time.
“Dealing with the effects of a trauma is a process, not an event,” said Acadia Healthcare Chief Medical Officer Michael Genovese, M.D., J.D. “Just as everyone experiences trauma differently, their responses and subsequent needs will vary accordingly. We need to ensure that we don’t view anxiety, insomnia or the like as weakness. They are symptoms deserving appropriate attention and treatment.”
There are healthy ways of coping, and there is also professional help available.
Helping Children Cope
Children who live through devastating traumatic events like school shootings will not walk away unscathed. Their lives have been changed irrevocably, and they need support as they learn how to navigate their futures.
It is common for people to say that kids are resilient, but we cannot disregard the fact that they are impacted by trauma just as adults are. And the effects of those traumatic experiences can be far-reaching and long-lasting. For this reason, it is important that we provide children with the support they need as they learn how to handle the effects of the experiences they have endured.
It is essential that we acknowledge the tragedy they faced and do not downplay or minimize their feelings. Their safe spaces may now feel unsafe. Kids who were present during a school shooting, for example, may have a resounding fear of returning to their classrooms. We must let children know that their fears are valid, but we must also work with them so that they can redevelop the sense of safety they need.
It can be detrimental to force conversations stressing that everything is OK, because, for them, things are not OK. That kind of conversation may make children feel as though their fears are unwarranted, potentially causing them to withdraw and keep their emotions inside instead of feeling free to express them with trusted adults.
That said, we do want to make every effort to help kids feel safe in the immediate future. Having open conversations with them in which we allow them to share what can be done to make them feel safe can be incredibly helpful. We do not need to have all the answers. We just need to listen to what our children tell us. Kids are intuitive, and they understand their needs more than we may give them credit for.
As adults, though, we should assume responsibility for the things we can do right away. It may be immensely beneficial to shield children from the immediate external outcomes to the best of our ability. This can be as simple as sheltering them from social media or news broadcasts that are discussing the event. Having repeated exposure to the occurrences will promote an ongoing sense of fear, and the narratives that may accompany the news coverage can be even more detrimental, especially as those narratives frequently take a political course.
You can also ask your child what you can do to make sure that they feel safe at home. Do they want to keep the lights on? Do they want to sleep in the same room as you? You can plan fun activities they enjoy to draw their attention away from focusing on the event. You can also ask them if they want to call family members to check in on them. It is not uncommon for children to fear for the safety of their loved ones after having experienced a trauma, and having those routine check-ins may make them feel more at ease.
Additionally, keep the conversation open. Check in with them and see how they are feeling. Give them the space to express any ongoing fears or anxieties they may be experiencing. This can help normalize their feelings, showing them that it is OK if they do not feel better right away. It may also be beneficial to share how you are feeling as well. While you should be cautious about the language you use, telling them that the experience scared you too or that you are feeling nervous can help reassure them that what they are experiencing is normal. It can be encouraging for them to know that you are healing together.
Ways Adults Can Cope
The lives of adults who experience traumatic events are also forever changed. In the instance of a school shooting, the adults who were present now have to confront an entirely new work environment. They have to take steps to ensure that a situation like that will not happen again, but they may question whether what they are doing is enough. They will also likely face the same fears about returning to the school as their students do.
The parents of the students may likewise be facing immense fear over the thought of their children being back in their classrooms. They may feel persistent anxiety about whether their child is safe throughout the day. They may worry that another similar event will happen. They may question their own judgment in terms of whether they should be keeping their children home or possibly even about sending them to another school.
This is not only normal but is to be expected.
You may wonder how you are going to cope with the effects of a traumatic experience, especially if you feel the pressure of needing to be strong for your children. But there are a number of things you can do.
In the event of a school shooting, speaking with school officials about any changes that may be made on school grounds, including enhanced safety measures, may help not only to alleviate adults’ fears, but also to prepare them for conversations with their children. Being able to assure them of tangible things that are being done to ensure their safety may help them feel more at peace about returning to the campus. It can also give parents and guardians the assurance they need to feel confident that their children are safe.
Similar to shielding children from news coverage of the event, adults should consider avoiding coverage as well. While you may want to learn more about the details of the event or stay up to date on what is happening post the event, it can be extremely beneficial to shelter yourself. Refrain from going on social media. Try to avoid watching the news. Find a movie to watch or play a game with your family. Touch base with your friends and tap into your support systems. Doing this does not mean that you are ignoring what happened; it simply means that you are giving yourself permission to take care of yourself.
If you are feeling anxiety about leaving home, then stay home as much as you are able to. Give yourself the space you need to grieve and come to terms with what you experienced.
Getting Professional Help
While lives are changed by devastating circumstances, they do not have to be destroyed. The fear and anxiety that may plague survivors of tragic events can be worked through.
In regard to children, perhaps one of the most important things we can do is provide them with additional opportunities to talk about what they experienced. Working with mental healthcare professionals gives children another safe space where they can share how they are feeling and process the events they experienced. These professionals are also able to provide support for parents, grandparents, guardians and any other adults in the children’s lives.
Asking for help is a sign of strength. By working with a mental healthcare professional, people can begin to heal from the distressing symptoms they are suffering from. Having an outlet for a person to talk about their experiences with someone who is trained in helping people who have experienced trauma can allow them to express their fears, discuss their anxieties and begin working to develop coping skills that may help start a course of healing.
There is hope. Trauma does not have to define a person’s future. While the memories cannot be erased, there is strength in healing.