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Helping the Community Cope with the Newtown Tragedy

As we all try to make sense of the recent tragedy in Newtown, many parents are still struggling with how to help their kids cope with the disturbing nature of the news they’ve either heard about or seen on TV.  It’s important to understand that a child’s reaction to a traumatic event like this is very different than an adult’s.  These reactions are often episodic and vary greatly depending on a child’s age. 

The following guide outlines some of the typical behaviors children display following a traumatic event at various ages.  We’ve also provided some tips to help parents respond to these behaviors and open up healing and useful conversations about the tragedy. 

The staff of Family Centers’ Trauma Response Team, Center for HOPE, The Den for Grieving Kids and Counseling & Mental Health Program are also available to assist during this difficult time.  To speak with a trained therapist or grief counselor, call:

Family Centers Stamford: 203-324-3167

Family Centers Greenwich: 203-629-2822

Center for HOPE/Family Centers Darien: 203-655-4693

 

Informacion en Espanol

 

Normal Responses (For Children Ages 5-8)

Regressive Behaviors

  • Loss of previously acquired toilet training
  • Clinging to parents
  • Wanting to remain close to home
  • Fear of going to sleep in own room/asking to sleep with others
  • Fear of being left alone
  • Thumb-sucking

Re-Experiencing the Trauma

  • Repetitive play in which themes or aspects of the incident are expressed
  • Recurrent distressing dreams about the event or recurrent frightening dreams without Recognizable content
  • Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring

Other Behaviors

  • Difficulty concentrating in school
  • Somatic complaints e.g. tummy aches, headaches, etc.
  • Fighting with classmates and siblings
  • Eating disturbances (e.g. loss of appetite or compulsive eating)
  • Irritability

Suggested Parental Responses

  • Your child may not understand their new, scary feelings and may not be able to verbalize what is happening inside of their minds and bodies.  Provide them with terms for their feelings. (Grief, sadness, fear, numbness, etc.)
  • Your child may ask questions about the event over and over again.  Answer concretely and lovingly. Answer only what they ask. Be honest. Don’t tell half truths. Replaying the traumatic event is healthy for some children and helps them to integrate the reality of what happened.
  • Your child may regress (Cling to parents, suck thumb, lose toilet training, baby talk, etc.).  Short-term regressive behaviors are normal. Accept the behavior and gently encourage the child to return to previous level of functioning.

 

Informacion en Espanol

Normal Responses (For Children Ages 9-12)

Regressive Behaviors

  • Wanting to remain close to home
  • Fear of going to sleep in own room/asking to sleep with parents
  • Fear of being in the dark
  • Fear of being left alone

Re-Experiencing the Trauma

  • Repetitive play in which themes or aspects of the incident are expressed
  • Recurrent distressing dreams about the event or recurrent frightening dreams without recognizable content
  • Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring

Other Behaviors

  • Difficulty concentrating in school
  • Somatic complaints
  • Fighting with classmates and siblings
  • Eating disturbances (e.g. loss of appetite or compulsive eating)
  • Irritability

Suggested Parental Responses

  • Your child is still expressing their reactions primarily through play.  Help them to express their feelings and concerns through drawing, writing, puppets, plays, etc.
  • Your child may experience disruption with school performance and social functioning.  Children need permission to recover from the event before they can be expected to resume previous functioning.
  • Children may need extra time and support to complete tasks.  Your child may act out because they don’t know how else to handle their feelings.  Offer other constructive “venting” alternatives. Maintain safe limits, i.e. do not accept risk taking behaviors as a mechanism for managing their feelings.

Normal Responses (For Children Ages 13-18)

Mental Reactions

  • Confusion and difficulty in making decisions and decreased alertness
  • Bothersome images and thoughts, nightmares
  • Replaying the event and disbelief that the event occurred
  • Searching for meaning

Emotional Reactions

  • Repetitive play in which themes or aspects of the incident are expressed
  • Recurrent distressing dreams about the event or recurrent frightening dreams without recognizable content
  • Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring

Physical Reactions

  • Difficulty concentrating in school
  • Somatic complaints
  • Fighting with classmates and siblings
  • Eating disturbances e.g. loss of appetite or compulsive eating
  • Irritability

Behavioral Reactions

  • Difficulty concentrating in school
  • Somatic complaints
  • Fighting with classmates and siblings
  • Eating disturbances e.g. loss of appetite or compulsive eating
  • Irritability

Suggested parental responses

  • Your child may act out or withdraw.  Acting-out behaviors should be tolerated as long as they adolescent does not harm self, others, or property of others. Short-term withdrawal is normal. Long term withdrawal is an indication that extra help is needed.
  • Your child may embark on a search for meaning. He or she may test his or her own mortality.  Adolescents begin to really explore the “why” questions of life and death. Encourage this search for meaning unless it could harm the adolescent or others.

When you and your child have experienced a trauma, it can be a shock to your whole system. The following are some ideas to help you and your child cope with any symptoms you may be experiencing.

  • Keep as normal a routine as possible
  • Eat well balanced and regular meals
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Avoid caffeine especially if you hare having trouble sleeping
  • Avoid the use of drugs or alcohol, including prescription and over the counter drugs to numb the pain. It will only complicate or delay your recovery
  • Give yourself permission to feel rotten and to share your feelings with others
  • Do the things you enjoy. Take mini-breaks: go out to dinner, take 10 minutes alone, watch a movie
  • Talk with people you trust: your family, friends, co-workers. Don’t be afraid to reach out. People do care
  • Don’t label yourself as “crazy.” Remind yourself you’re having normal reactions
  • Write down your thoughts and feelings. This can be especially helpful if you’re having trouble sleeping
  • Ask for help if you need it. If you or your child are having trouble coping on your own help is available

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