Supporting Children and Families After Tragedy
The recent shooting in Las Vegas has reminded us all that tragic events like these have become too common in this country. Like you, the HighScope family is deeply saddened by this reality, and we recognize that it is our collective responsibility as educators and parents to ensure that the young children in our care feel safe and supported. It is at times like these when we become even more aware of the importance of our work and our ability to directly impact the next generation — and the generations to come — by providing young children with support, understanding, and love so that their world may become a better place.
It is overwhelming to consider the number of tragedies our nation has experienced over the last 18 years, beginning with the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, which resulted in the deaths of 14 students and one teacher, to last week’s massacre in Las Vegas, where 58 people were killed and hundreds more remain injured. For many people, September 11, 2001, signifies the date when our lives as American citizens changed forever. For others, it is December 14, 2012, when 20 young children and 6 adults were shot and killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As a nation, we came to the somber realization that not even a group of young children, presumed safe in their classrooms, were spared from violence.
As a community of teachers, parents, and caregivers of young children, we are faced with two equally important issues related to these tragedies:
- Understanding the psychological impact of the recent shooting, and
- restoring a sense of safety in the aftermath
People who have experienced or witnessed a tragic event such as a mass shooting are acutely affected, and even those who have knowledge of the event are affected in some way. Simply being aware of a national tragedy can have an impact on psychological coping responses for up to 6 months after the event (Silver et al., 2002). Post-traumatic stress (recurrent reminders of the event and strong emotional reactions), grief (loss of a loved one), depression (overwhelming sadness, change in mood, sleeping, or eating), and even physical symptoms (headaches or stomachaches) are all possible reactions to the tragedy.
In addition to post-traumatic stress, teachers may become withdrawn or burned out. Similarly, for young children, a tragic event can disrupt children’s sense of security. Teachers, parents, and caregivers should look out for changes in children’s behavior and mood. Young children can revert to an earlier developmental stage, and they may also have frequent crying spells or become more withdrawn (Osofsky, 2007; Van Der Kolk, 2014).
Children expect the adults in their lives to keep them safe and reassure them that everything is going to be okay, but mass violence creates insecurity for everyone. Herein lies the challenge for parents, teachers, and caregivers of young children. When the adults in children’s lives feel insecure and unsafe as a result of a tragic event, it is difficult to care for and support children who have also been exposed to the tragedy.
School administrators and supervisors can monitor staff for signs of anxiety and stress, and ensure that teachers receive additional support if needed (e.g., presentations, facilitated group discussions with a mental health professional on coping with tragedy and associated stress, individual support). Facilitated discussions with parents about school safety plans can help reassure families about how children will be kept safe throughout the school day. Caring for ourselves as parents, teachers, and caregivers allows us to be emotional buffers for our children.
Here are additional strategies to help adults restore a sense of safety to their lives and the lives of young children who have been affected by a tragic event:
- Remain calm; children’s emotions will often reflect the adults around them, so it’s important to pay attention to how you react and converse with other adults where children may see or hear you.
- Limit exposure (including television, social media, radio, magazines/newspapers) about the tragedy. Adhere to daily routines, school, and family rituals.
- Monitor children for signs of sadness and anxiety.
For children showing signs of anxiety and/or extreme changes in behavior or mood:
- Encourage them to express their feelings through talking, crying if they need to, or engaging in an art activity.
- Reassure them that the adults in their lives will always keep them safe and secure.
- If necessary, seek professional help and resources from your child’s school.
The 24-hour news cycle, the internet, and social media all contribute to the public’s heightened awareness of tragic events happening in our country and throughout the world. As a result of this heightened awareness, we must also acknowledge that we are all affected in some way by these events and seek help when necessary. If our greatest treasure is our children, then let us be relentless in our protection of them.
Osofsky, J. D. (Ed.). (2007). Young children and trauma: Intervention and treatment. New York: The Guilford Press.
Silver, R. C., Holman, E. A., McIntosh, D. N., Poulin, M., & Gil-Rivas, V. (2002). Nationwide longitudinal study of psychological responses to
September 11. Journal of the American Medical Association, 288(10), 1235–1244. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/195281
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score; Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.
After School Violence, Traumatized Teachers Need Help
Children’s Responses to Crises and Tragic Events
Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do
Helping Children Cope: Tips for Talking about Tragedy
Helping Your Child Cope After a Disaster
In the Aftermath of a Shooting: Help Your Children Manage Distress
Restoring a Sense of Safety in the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting: Tips for Parents and Professionals
Tips for Talking to Children After a Disaster: A Guide for Parents and Teachers