Helping Anxious Students Cope with the Sandy Hook Shooting

Parents and educators are united today in our heartbreak and horror regarding this morning’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  In place of my planned post, I’d like to provide a few pieces of advice for parents and teachers of anxious students.  In the days following this tragedy, students outside of Newtown will likely maintain their regular school schedule.  However, students across the country, especially those with preexisting anxiety disorders, may have difficulty coping with the confusing and frightening news.  Here are some ways to help your children or students through this crisis:

Turn off the TV!
Adults know the TV news often relies on sensationalism to attract and retain viewers, but this concept can be very difficult for children to understand. Anxious children in particular may be harmed by television news on even a “slow news day.” During a crisis, kids should be nowhere near the news. Keep the TV off in the classroom and at home. If you feel that you need regular updates about a crisis, watch in another room or read Internet coverage to yourself.

Parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba tweeted this earlier today:

MB tweet

Keep Calm
In any crisis, the best thing you can do is show your students or children that you are calm. Children rely on adults for consistency and stability. It’s certainly all right to show your anxious children or students that adults have emotions (this is a crucial element in teaching empathy), but keep your emotions controlled. In order to stay calm, make sure to take care of yourself by finding support with another adult.

Avoid School Refusal by Maintaining Routines
In an earlier post about Hurricane Sandy, I addressed the importance of maintaining routines after a crisis. After hearing about a school shooting, anxious children may refuse to return to their schools. Because we’re all frightened by shootings, it can be tempting to keep students home with you. However, doing so is likely to reinforce your child’s belief that school is dangerous. If your child does begin to exhibit symptoms of school refusal, contact your pediatrician or mental health professional.

Address Guilt and Prevent Magical Thinking
We all have the tendency to blame ourselves when things go wrong. Guilt after a tragedy is normal and not necessarily harmful. Today, older children may feel guilty about laughing, gossiping, or becoming upset about trivial issues while other children have suffered so terribly. Adults certainly experience similar emotions. If your child expresses this type of guilt, reassure her that her feelings are normal, and remind her that she should enjoy her day. Tragedies remind us to enjoy and give thanks for our myriad blessings. They also give us the opportunity to practice perspective when dealing with our daily conflicts. If appropriate, help your child use her guilt as a tool. However, if your child seems preoccupied by guilt, especially about events out of her control, consult a mental health professional.

While guilt is a normal and potentially useful response to tragedy, magical thinking is nearly always harmful. Magical thinking often takes the form of a fallacious belief that one’s thoughts have affected reality. It is common in young children and individuals with some mental illnesses. In eighth grade, my Obsessive-compulsive Disorder caused me to worry that my thoughts had caused the attacks on 9/11. Intellectually, I knew this fear was irrational and narcissistic, but I could not overcome it. Magical thinking should be addressed directly and explicitly. Make sure your child knows that it’s a common symptom of anxiety. Always (lovingly) insist that the fears caused by magical thinking are irrational and impossible.

Offer Extra Support
Immediately after a crisis, some anxious children will regress in order to reduce anxiety. I personally recommend allowing periods of regression (thumb-sucking, sleeping in parents’ bed, etc.) as long as they are brief and seem to be helping your child move past the crisis. If your student or child lingers in a period of regression, lovingly encourage him to incrementally regain his independence. Intense anxiety may prevent a child from overcoming his urge to regress. In this case, consult a mental health professional.

If your child has been directly affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, please contact your pediatrician or a mental health professional regarding the risk of PTSD. If you have already spoken to a professional, you are welcome to contact me for free advice, information, and support regarding anxiety in children. Teachers in Newtown, Connecticut are also welcome to contact me for free tips regarding addressing child anxiety in the classroom.

Here is a list of helpful online resources for helping your students and children cope with this tragedy:

Caring for Kids After a School Shooting (video), Child Mind Institute

Helping Children After a Disaster, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)

Talking with Kids about the News, PBS

For New York City parents: Fearless Learning’s school refusal program

Our hearts are with the students, parents, faculty, and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the community of Newtown, CT.

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