Editor’s note: Dr. Wendy Walsh is a psychologist and relationships expert. She is the host of Investigation Discovery’s “Happily Never After” and author of “ The 30-Day Love Detox.” She is on Twitter.
On the morning of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, I was sitting in my own child’s elementary school auditorium, welling up with tears of joy at the holiday program. I don’t think we can get closer to God than when we hear a 4-year-old belt out “Joy to the World.” But as the last red sweater left the stage, I grabbed my iPhone to tune back into the world.
What I read on that device stopped my body short: A slew of emails from media outlets with subject lines that read “elementary school shooting – kids dead.” I’d like to say that I wept immediately, that my heart raced, that I shook violently or had trouble breathing. After all, kids are my sweet spot: When I write and speak about relationships, my advice always circles back to what is best for the kids.
But instead, the traumatic news of the Sandy Hook shooting gently washed over me like a tiny wave. Trauma is like that: The tidal waves can show up later. Instead of answering to the journalists’ calls, I found myself walking zombie-like to the third-grade classroom and asking the teacher if I could stay and help with an art project or a holiday party. Obviously, I needed to be near my child while my compassion meter registered the sober reality of the horrors of those Connecticut parents.
This morning, it hit: That tidal wave. As I type this, trauma is working its curious way through my body. And that’s what I would like everyone to understand: Whether you are in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, or in your living room watching the horrific scenes unfold on television, you and your children may experience trauma.
Individuals experience trauma in different ways. Some people are spurred into action, feeling that “doing something” will ease their pain. They organize fundraising drives or prayer groups. Others get busy in a different way. Seeming to be oblivious, they distract themselves with unrelated tasks. But this defense usually lasts until the trauma works its way out through irritability and petty fights with loved ones.
Still others, the talkers and extroverts among us, take to the phones and Twitter and Facebook, asking “why?” and “how can we prevent?” Others fall silent. If they are artists, trauma oozes out through a form of art. Some people are fine until nightfall, when their dreams disturb them.
We all deal with trauma in different ways, and children are especially sensitive.
They tend to be less verbal, so the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder almost always show up in their bodies — regressions, bed wetting, whining, tantrums, toy breaking or nightmares. And in today’s times, with such pervasive media, it will be nearly impossible to keep the trauma of Sandy Hook away from any school-aged child. As a parent, here are a few ways that you can help your child deal with the news:
1. Let your child lead the conversation: Don’t bombard kids with details they can barely comprehend. Answer questions honestly and calmly. Show compassion on your face and in your voice. Give no more details than what is asked.
2. Contain yourself : Small children look to parents for clues on how they should feel. While you don’t want kids to think you aren’t feeling anything at all, collapsing in crying jags and telephone rants in front of kids can rattle their core. To them, you are their strong protector. If you fall apart, so will they.
3. Do not punish developmental regressions: Bed wetting may happen. Tantrums can occur. A child may want to sleep in your bed. This is not the time for lectures and stern admonitions. This is the time to wrap a child in your arms and let them know everything will be okay.
4. Don’t make them talk about it : Most children in shock have a hard time connecting feelings with words. Instead, create, draw, sing, or play music with them.
5. Model healthy ways of dealing with trauma : Light a candle for the victims and their families. If you practice a faith, have your children join you in prayer. Find a positive thing to do together as a family in your own community. (My family is packing holiday food baskets next week.) Find a way to reach out to your own community with love and care.
Childhood psychological trauma is tricky. Some kids can have wounds that show up decades later in the forms of unexplained fears and anxieties. Others, because of the miracle of neuroplasticity, have brains that heal well, sometimes much better than adults who have been exposed to trauma.
The most important thing in the days, weeks and months to come is that you remain in tune with your children. Look into their eyes, listen to the many meanings of their words, give them creative outlets for expression.
And most of all, don’t criticize them. They are finding their own perfect way to ease trauma out of their tiny body. Be a kind, solid, presence while they do that.