Triumph & Trust in Spite of Triggers & Tragedy

On August 4, 2019, shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas once again stole precious lives and an ever-fleeting sense of safety from Americans. I had the opportunity on August 12 to talk with Melissa Sheketoff on WICC600 about these tragedies. Check out the podcast here. As I said on the air, because of how commonplace these shootings have become, parents are forced to have to confront these horrific circumstances sooner than desired. However, these terrible tragedies also provide kids, parents, everyone a chance to cultivate empathy, a sense of justice, and an awareness from a deeper place than they would have.

In talking to kids, there are a few things to consider. First things first, however, our kids need to know they are SAFE. The mass shootings that are so frequently televised do NOT represent the majority of schools. Yes, we have sadly seen a rise in school violence, but the odds are, most kids will not experience a mass shooting. The best time to have a conversation with kids about the frightening shootings is when the need arises. And remember, YOU as the trusted adult want to have this conversation with your kids. Don’t leave this conversation to the media or to their peers. They are looking to YOU for guidance. Don’t let ignorance or fear fill in the gaps of information when you have the power in that moment to answer their questions. Initially, when something first happens, just help the child know they are safe and you as parents are there to protect them. After things have settled and the child seems less frightened, a broader conversation can happen and just how broad will be dependent upon the specific age. Though we cannot always prevent bad things from happening, we can remind them of the law enforcement personnel, school personnel, parents, and guardians who love them and are looking out for them. In this conversation, there is again room for empathy—for those injured and for those loved ones of the lost or injured. At an even deeper level as older kids wrestle with the tragedies, we can remind them that hurt people hurt people. The gunmen may have also had some serious dysfunction or hurt that so twisted and tainted them or perhaps mental illness took over. In making sense of tragedy, many families also take consolation in their faith. I have noticed in my work in private practice that those who possess a faith and belief in a higher power move forward in trauma quicker than those who do not.

As parents, you have a HUGE impact in how a child processes trauma. Those children who have a secure attachment, or connection, with their parents, will be able to process trauma much better than those who do not. Also, children have a better chance of processing trauma successfully when it is a single event, as opposed to an ongoing event. However, parents, it is also critical that you check your own emotional response and process what you can as your own thoughts, feelings, and perspectives will likely be translated to your kids. In thinking about how trauma affects children differently depending on the developmental stage, I came across an article on by Megan Holohan and it had some great advice. For example, children under the age of 8 do not need to talk about the tragedies, unless they bring it up to you or are directly affected. And even then, a brief message, about 1 sentence if the child is 6 or under and only a little more if older, is necessary. Focusing on the positives and those brave acts of service by those involved is a powerful way to reframe a tragedy. Though it does not negate what happened, it protects kids from some of the traumatic effects and helps them to regain a sense of control over their world. Another way to shield is to avoid kids seeing images of the events as much as possible. And for the older preteens and even teens, talking with them about their feelings is hugely validating and sometimes more important than just giving them the right “facts.”

The bottom line is this, we live in an unpredictable and at times frightening world, but we as parents are the most critical conduits of healing for our kids affected by tragedy, the most powerful lens through which they see it, and the safest haven for them to return from it. In spite of triggers and tragedies, you can help restore their trust that there is still good in the world and that love triumphs over evil.

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