Helping Children Cope with Tragedy

Editorial Note: I wrestled with whether this is the appropriate outlet for this post, but as I read more on this story, I thought we'd be remiss if we did not mention it in some light and offer some resources.  Everyday, we work with children the same age as the children at Sandy Hook Elementary, with children who are grieving, and children who very likely may be experiencing some difficult emotions this week.  I offer this as an attempt to address a sensitive issue and offer resources for those who need them.

Our nation was struck by unthinkable tragedy on Friday.  Like many other people, the news was incomprehensible to me.  I just could not imagine the depths of evil that could result in a tragedy such as this one.

So much has been written and said about this incident, and I'm not going to attempt to put the emotions everyone is feeling into words here.  It would be a futile effort.  But as therapists, we have work to do, and we're ready to do it.

I was about ready to start middle school when the Columbine shooting happened.  I remember sitting in a restaurant with my family eating dinner, but staring at the television over their shoulders.  That event shook me.  I felt like crying and screaming in the middle of the restaurant.  It was a very difficult event for me to tackle.  It just hit so close to home.

Similarly, I would imagine many of the young clients we work with may be experiencing similar emotions.  Even when we didn't lose someone we know personally, people still experience a grieving process with events like these.  With children, this may be one of the first times they've experienced these emotions.  It's important to the grieving process to allow for the expression of these emotions.  Let your children know that it's normal to have those feelings, and give them an opportunity to talk about them.  You don't need to force them to speak, but just be wary that any changes in behavior could be a reflection of some difficult feelings happening inside them.

The Dougy Center, a non-profit dedicating to supporting grieving children and families, offers this excellent resource titled "How to Help a Grieving Child."  If your child is experiencing some difficult feelings in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy and you're not entirely sure how to grapple with those emotions, look through that site.

The American Psychiatric Association offers this helpful resource as well, on how to talk to your children about disasters.

Another aspect of this story is the discussion that has been brought up in the national media over whether or not the perpetrator was diagnosed on the autism spectrum.  To my knowledge, this is nothing more than speculation at this point.  Speculation or not, it is a bit disheartening to see stereotypes of people with autism perpetuated on national media.  As parents and loved ones of people with autism, we know that autism has little to nothing to do with the unthinkable acts carried out in Connecticut.

This serves as a continuing reminder to be advocates and speak up against harmful stereotypes.  Additionally, these story lines may further add to the complex emotions felt by the children in our lives, particularly those diagnosed on the autism spectrum.  Be alert to those feeling as well, and again, allow them to be discussed.

As we move forward, we remember the victims, and we're reminded to never take a moment with our loved ones for granted.  As we like to do here, I'm going to let the music do the speaking for us with this very touching tribute on NBC's Saturday Night Live this past Saturday.