WASHINGTON -- As parents around the country prepare to send their children back to school on Monday, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, could result in many children, moms, and dads feeling anxious about routine school activities.
Georgetown University psychologist and childhood trauma expert Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, EdD, and child psychiatrist Matthew G. Biel, MD, MSc, offer advice for families coping with the concerns and stress of going back to school.
Biel says children should to return to school and resume other routine activities. He asserts that parents have a critical role in maintaining normalcy for their children in the wake of a traumatic event.
“Assure your children that they are safe, that their school is safe, and that you are available whenever they need you,” Biel advises. “This is such a tragic event, but the reality is that the vast majority of our children’s schools are very safe places, and we need to emphasize that fact to our kids and to ourselves.”
Biel points out that significant media coverage of the shootings will continue and recommends minimizing children’s exposure to it. “We know from past events that children who are exposed to significant amounts of media coverage are much more likely to suffer from traumatic stress symptoms. Younger children in particular aren’t able to distinguish past and present in media coverage—seeing ongoing coverage is repetitively traumatic and harmful,” he explains.
Biel says children and adolescents may show clinical signs of distress in the wake of a traumatic event. Preschoolers and elementary school-age children may demonstrate separation anxiety, disruptive behavior, sleep difficulties, or developmental regression. Physical symptoms such as stomachaches or headaches are also common in younger children. Adolescents may also struggle with anxiety or sleep changes, and may also experience moodiness or irritability.
Biel continues, “Your children may ask questions or comment about the event for days and weeks to come.” He recommends that parents follow their child’s lead. “If they bring it up, ask what they know about the event and ask if they have any questions. Use simple, direct, honest answers and employ age-appropriate language and explanations. Children who don’t discuss the event shouldn’t be prodded by parents—kids will let us know when they are ready to talk.”
Dass-Brailsford points out that parents will need help from their friends and family, too.
“Parents will need support so they can better support their kids,” Dass-Brailsford points out. “When young children experience a traumatic stressor, their first response is usually to look for reassurance from the adults who care for them. The most important adults in a young child's life are his or her caregivers and relatives. These adults can help reestablish security and stability for children who have experienced trauma.”
Dass-Brailsford says parents are not expected to explain why the shooting happened.
“It’s hard to explain violence to kids, so focus on the emotional and caretaking aspects of being a parent. Children will need a lot of reassuring -- hugs work well,” she suggests.
Dass-Brailsford is an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center. She is the editor of Crisis and Disaster Counseling: Lessons Learned From Hurricane Katrina and Other Disasters, was a first-responder in the week after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and 9/11 in New York City. She is also an active member of the American Psychological Association’s Divisions of Trauma Psychology, Counseling Psychology and Ethnic Minority Psychology.
Biel is assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and pediatrics at Georgetown University Medical Center and chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
Biel and Dass-Brailsford is available for media interviews by contacting Karen Mallet at 215-514-9751 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Georgetown University Medical Center
Georgetown University Medical Center is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis -- or "care of the whole person." The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing & Health Studies, both nationally ranked; Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute; and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization (BGRO), which accounts for the majority of externally funded research at GUMC including a Clinical Translation and Science Award from the National Institutes of Health. In fiscal year 2010-11, GUMC accounted for 85 percent of the university’s sponsored research funding.