Words can’t convey the horror of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Every parent grieves for the lost lives, particularly those of the children, and is overwhelmingly sorry for their parents.
But it’s not only the deaths. Everyone in that school – teachers, aides and particularly the children – has been traumatized to some degree by this tragedy.
Early reports indicate that some of the children were told to close their eyes as they were led out of the school. That was an excellent idea. The less they saw and heard, the less damage there is likely to be.
The extent of that damage will vary from child to child. Some children are unusually sensitive, while others are more resilient to stress. Some children may have experienced previous trauma and be more susceptible to stress. Obviously, those who lost friends will be among the more devastated.
So these kids are going to need counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder because they have now seen the kinds of things that a combat vet sees. They may have only seen them once, but they’ve seen them at an unusually impressive age.
Parents will need to watch their children very carefully in the days and weeks to come, looking for changes in behavior.
One likely manifestation will be nightmares, or as some soldiers call them, “night terrors.” Keep your children close, keep them safe, and comfort them. Talk about their dreams and their fears and their feelings.
Watch for avoidance, not wanting to go near the school or even not wanting to go outside. Watch for unusual reactions to loud noises or sirens or uniforms.
Many victims of PTSD can’t handle the emotions, and they become numb or desensitized. It’s important … gently … to talk about those emotions because it’s dangerous to let them become bottled up. Bottling up bad emotions may result in bottling up good emotions, as well.
Another common symptom of PTSD is hyperarousal. For these kids, that would mean that they’re constantly alert to the possibility that something similar will happen again. They may be checking the hallways regularly to make sure that another guy with another gun isn’t coming back to finish the job.
Depression is common, as is anger. That’s a product of fear that comes from being in danger, espeially in a frightening situation over which they have no control.
This would be a good time to check the household for toys that might bring back bad memories. Guns and ambulances come to mind.
And it’s critical not to re-traumatize a child by allowing him or her to watch violence television shows, movies or video games. Children shouldn’t see those things anyway, but it’s important now to make sure children aren’t exposed to them.
Finally, understand that this is likely to be a problem that unfolds. It will take a while for kids to process what they’ve been through, so symptoms of PTSD may not show up for days or perhaps even weeks.