Life According To Lenson
Helping Kids After Elementary School Massacre
By Eileen Lenson
Dec 16, 2012 - 11:14:07 AM

UNITED STATES—Only months after the horrific massacre in a Colorado movie theatre, the unthinkable has happened again with a deranged gunman committing mass murder. This time, the victims include an entire kindergarten class and school personnel in Connecticut.


Despite the outpouring of support to survivors and their loved ones from communities throughout the country, there is no way to relieve the bereaved of their pain. Few can understand the ability of one individual to be responsible for so much hatred and violence towards defenseless people.


Parents from Connecticut to California want to know how to help their young children move through this event with as little permanent emotional trauma as possible. They know that frightening events such as these cause children to lose their innocence. No longer can children view all schools as being safe, nor all adults as trustworthy.


In the initial days and weeks following the murders, children will react differently based on their age and social situation. The age of children and their developmental stage will influence their ability to understand the traumatic event and response. Children younger than seven years old have difficulty comprehending the permanency of death. They may ask repeated questions in an effort to grasp the concept of death. Anticipate temporary regression in young children, such as reverting to bedwetting or thumb sucking. Older children, age seven to eleven may fear abandonment and become clingy, whiny, needy or act out.


If they are afraid of the dark, allowing them to keep a light on in their bedroom at night as it reduces anxiety about the 'boogey man'. Teenagers often turn to their peers for support at this time, preventing parents from knowing if they have concerns that would best be addressed. Teenagers may appear to be strong and sophisticated. But if they become overwhelmed and view the world as being unsafe, they may retreat from wanting to eventually leave their parents. Or, they may cope with their fears by engaging in reckless or illegal behaviors.


There is no specific guideline for how each child will, or should, respond. Children who tended to be verbal before the shooting may continue to be verbal, talking to parents endlessly about their thoughts and concerns. Permitting children to talk about their feelings is beneficial. It lets them feel valued and helps them organize their emotions.


Encourage children who are quiet to talk, letting them know that anything they are feeling is acceptable and that you are there to listen to them. For those who are particularly reticent to talk about their feelings, having them draw a picture or write a story can help in processing their feelings. Ask the child if he or she would like to explain their work to you, and receive it non-judgmentally.


Some children may not appear to be affected, and not demonstrate reaction. One should not assume they are unaffected, as they may respond in very different ways, at a different time.


Children, who have experienced the loss of a loved one, significant family stress, or a previous trauma, will be at higher risk following a new trauma. Parents of these children need to be aware of the added stresses they will be facing and closely monitor them.


Children hundreds of miles away from the scene of a tragedy can become victimized when it is brought into their living rooms through television reports. Children can be traumatized by such reporting and should be kept away from repeated television coverage of the massacre. Dinner table conversations about the shootings may similarly affect children. Ensure that the dinner table is a nurturing environment by not discussing the elementary school trauma.


Children who feel overwhelmed by the elementary school shootings are likely to exhibit behaviors including reliving the experience, avoiding people or places that remind them of the trauma, disinterest in activities that previously provided happiness, irritability, distraction, somatic complaints, or concern about the health and welfare of family or friends.


Children need to trust that their parents are the 'go to' people when they want information. Help reinforce this notion by choosing your words appropriately for the age of your children. This will ensure that your messages are received in the manner you planned. If you feel you are upset about the situation at the time, be honest and tell your child you are upset rather than denying your feelings and saying you are 'okay'. By doing so, you are modeling acceptance of painful feelings and how to manage them appropriately. Children are likely to hear partial information or misinformation about the tragedy from others. It is important that you have open communication with your children so that they can verify rumors with you.


Do not overload children with any more information than that which they are requesting. Prepare them in advance for any changes that may be taking place as a result of the event. This provides them with a sense of control and mastery of their own lives at a time when the universe seems to be spinning out of control. Do not feel you need to do it all alone. Enlist the support of a trusted friend, clergy, or family member to help.


Getting back to normal patterns is important for children. Children feel safe when familiar structure is provided. Resume studies, music practice, and shopping for Christmas gifts. Keep regular sleeping and eating schedules in place. These activities will help kick- start their natural resiliency.


Ensure your children are receiving support from others in their social sphere. Passive activities such as going to the movies with grandparents, reading a book with parents, and playing with friends helps children recover from the trauma.


Take heed in the saying, 'As go the parents, so go the children'. Parents need to remember to take care of themselves following a traumatic experience, because children are taking cues for coping from them. Reach out for support from clergy, friends, or professionals. Seeking psychological help does not imply mental illness or weakness. Rather, it can help you will find the strength to better cope with emotional problems your children may be experiencing.


Children need reassurance that they are safe from another horrific event, and that their world is safe and predictable. Parents can use this as a teaching opportunity to let their children know that while there are bad people in the world, they will do everything possible to protect them. Guiding them through this trauma by being supportive, providing abundant hugs and kisses, spending time together, and listening non-judgmentally will help children learn healthy coping skills that will serve them for a lifetime.


Eileen Lenson, MSW, ACSW, Board Certified Coach, is a life and business coach in private practice. Previously, she was a licensed clinical social worker for 20 years. During that period of time she authored a business book on psychotherapy, taught ethics, and worked with individual, couples, families and groups. For further information, write to her at, or visit her website at


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