Resources to Deal with the Sandy Hook Tragedy:
A Comprehensive Resource Guide for Mental Health Professionals, Educators, and Parents
As the gravity of the Sandy Hook tragedy begins to settle in Connecticut and across the country, the work of Mental Health Professionals, Educators, and Parents continues in earnest. Fortunately, the resources available to help these groups deal with discussing this tragedy are plentiful. However, they can often be hard to sift through as well as they are dispersed across multiple sites. This page is meant to function as a one stop shop to access collective advice and resources from a number of mental health and educator groups on dealing with violent traumatic events.
For Mental Health Professionals
Assisting Children, Adults, and Families Affected by Violent Traumatic Experiences:
Depending on the age, people may react differently to traumatic events: An important publication from the faculty and staff at the NYU Child Studies Center entitled Caring for Kids after Trauma and Death: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, provides some common behaviors and reactions. Click here for a copy of the full report (PDF).
INFANTS AND TODDLERS: BEFORE AGE 3
Searching for parents/caregivers
Clinging • Change in sleep and eating habits
Regression to earlier behavior (e.g. bed-wetting, thumb sucking)
Repetitive play or talk
PRESCHOOLERS AND YOUNG CHILDREN: 3-5 YEAR OLDS
Separation fears (e.g. from parents/loved ones)
Tantrums, irritable outbursts
Regression to earlier behavior (e.g. bed-wetting, thumb sucking)
School problems (e.g. avoidance, academic difficulty, difficulty concentrating)
MIDDLE SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN: 9-12 YEAR OLDS
Longing for someone who has died
Aggression, irritability, bullying
Sadness, isolation, withdrawal
Fears, anxiety, panic
Suppressed emotions, denial, avoidance
Concern about physical health and physical complaints
Academic problems or decline, school refusal, memory problems
Repetitive thoughts or talk with peers
“Hysterical” expressions of concern and need to help
EARLY TEENS AND ADOLESCENTS: 13-18 YEAR OLDS
Avoidance of feelings
Resentment, loss of trust
Depression, suicidal thoughts
Distancing, withdrawal, panic
Mood swings, irritability
Anxiety, panic, dissociation •
Acting out (engaging in risky, antisocial, or illegal behavior)
Fear of similar events, illness, death, the future
Appetite and sleep changes
Physical complaints or changes
Academic decline, school refusal
Get families to talk about what happened and how they are feeling with one another: Dealing with violent traumatic events may sometimes leave families at a loss properly to address what happened on their own. Mental health professionals can help by creating a safe space and structure for exploring residual feelings that may exist in the aftermath. Furthermore, practitioners should encourage families to have ongoing conversations as children in particular may need additional time to understand and process what happened. However, these conversations should not be forced as family members may be at different stages of being able to discuss these events.
Actively listen and validate how clients are feeling: The rate and extent in which clients may be willing to discuss traumatic events will vary. Feelings of fear, grief, anger, and guilt are not uncommon in the aftermath of such events. As practitioners, actively listening by validating how clients feel can be helpful in helping them to return to optimal functioning. Additionally, space should also be given for the practitioner to allow clients to experience supportive silence and positive non-verbal body language with clients.
Address the memories of the event: Memories of the event may be with clients for the long term. These memories may trigger painful emotions and negative behaviors such as withdrawal, avoidance, and/or hyper-vigilance in order to cope with these events. Providing clients and their families’ opportunities to discuss their feelings and providing positive coping mechanisms can assist in recovering from these events.
De-emphasize clinical, diagnostic and pathological language: Violent events and their aftermath may bring on symptoms of clinical issues such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. However, in helping clients recover from violent traumatic events it is usually best to steer away from language that connects to diagnosis.
Communicate, person to person rather than “expert” to “victim,” using straightforward terms: Practitioners can foster rapport and encourage exploration by emphasizing a helping relationship based on genuine inquiry rather than the expert position of treating them as a victim of an event. By talking on more general terms with clients, deeper trust can be established which can draw clients out more to discuss what happened.
Work to foster resilience in clients: The APA suggests that a strengths based approach toward dealing with violent events can promote long term recovery by helping clients adapt to traumatic events. Depending on cultural and personal differences, the path to resilience will vary. However, the APA suggests ten possible ways of developing resilience here.
Assist clients with their exposure to media coverage: Extensive media coverage can exacerbate negative emotions and serve as constant reminders of what happened. Practitioners can help by placing coverage into context, addressing misconceptions, reminding clients that there are also positive things occurring in the world. Furthermore, clients should be encouraged to limit their exposure to media coverage as needed.
Understand your comfort level with dealing with violent traumatic events: Understanding how we also deal with violent traumatic events is vital in assisting clients. Providing care to clients after such events can trigger our own emotional reactions and potentially result in burnout. Seek assistance from other practitioners in managing your own emotions and refer clients to the appropriate resources as needed.
Coping Resources for First Responders and Affected Educators
Responders can often manifest stress in different ways: For those who respond to extremely violent traumatic events, each person can manifest trouble dealing with these situations differently. Reactions can manifest on behavioral, physical, emotional, cognitive, and social levels. Practitioners are encouraged to help clients monitor and deal with these reactions.
Promote self-care: Given an inclination toward helping others in distress, these clients can often forget to monitor their own self-care. Practitioners should encourage these clients to seek support from others, engage in hobbies, and exercise regularly to promote healthy well-being.
Connecting those affected with other first responders: Discussing experiences with others who have been through similar circumstances potentially can give clients another avenue to explore feelings in a safe space.
Monitor alcohol and drug use: Given the levels of stress these clients may be dealing with practitioners should monitor alcohol and substance abuse. These avenues can often be used as coping mechanisms to deal with the turmoil of such events.
Suggest relaxation techniques to help them cope: Consistent levels of high stress after violent traumatic events can result in a number of physical and emotional dysfunctions for first responders. Breathing exercises, journaling, and mindfulness trainings can be helpful recommendations to allow clients to process these events.
Encourage time off to process the event: In some tragic events, even trained responders may need time away to deal with the event. In such cases, clients should be encouraged to take time off as needed.
Listen, Protect, Connect, Model, and Teach: According to an important publication from FEMA entitled, Listen, Protect, Connect – Model & Teach: Psychological First Aid (PFA) for Students and Teachers, the following five part model should be used to deal with helping students recover from traumatic events. Click here for a copy of the full report (PDF).
Listen: Let students know that you are willing to talk and listen to them. Also listen for signs that students may be struggling and prepare to refer them to additional resources as needed.
Protect: Let students know that they are safe by being honest with them about what has happened. Talk to students about what is being done in both their community and in school to protect them. Avoid unnecessary changes in classroom structure and work to maintain a sense of routine.
Connect: Check in with students on a regular basis to how they are doing. Connect students to additional resources as needed. Keep students connected with class projects and extracurricular activities.
Model: Students will look to you as role models as to how to behave and process these types of events. Monitor how you talk about the events with and within earshot of students. Also, take time to understand how you cope with events and make sure to practice self-care.
Teach: Talk to students about what they can expect in terms of emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and physiological reactions. Help students adopt and identify positive coaching strategies to help them after the event. Note that though these events may be hard to deal with, they will get better with time.
Understand that events like these may affect academic performance and functioning: As students return to normal functioning, academic performance may become impaired. Students may benefit from educators being empathetic in allowing some consideration during this time. Educators may also consider setting up a series of small win achievements to restore confidence and safety for students recovering from such events.
Show empathy by asking open ended questions, rather than establishing commonalities in experiences: It may be tempting when helping students through these types of experiences to talk about your own feelings and what you are going through as a way of building rapport. However, these disclosures may prevent students from feeling completely safe in disclosing their feelings to you. Rather than saying phrases such as “I know how you feel” a more appropriate response might be “It sounds like you are having a tough time, what are you feeling right now?” This may allow students to feel safe and secure in exploring their feelings with you.
Identify teachable moments and provide information that is factual and dispels rumors: Violent traumatic events can be opportunities to teach students about appropriate responses to conflict as well as issues affecting their communities. Additionally, Educators should give straight forward factual information concerning what has happened and dispel rumors that may be upsetting or confusing students.
Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate: Per the National Association for School Psychologists the following should be kept in mind: Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. They will be more committed to doing something to help the victims and affected community.
Talk, listen, and reestablish safety: Children may be understandably adversely affected by violent traumatic events. The best help you can provide is spending time with your children and being available to talk and listen to them about what happened as needed. Furthermore, you serve an important role in reassuring them about what is being done to keep them safe. Maintaining structure and routine also go a long way in reestablishing safety.
Role model positive behavior: Children will being looking to you for guidance and support. However, they will also be taking cues from you as to how to cope as well. Be mindful of how you talk about your own feelings about the event. Also be careful to be socially and culturally sensitive as well in talking about the event as children are likely to adopt your views on the topic.
Limit media exposure to the event: Excessive media converge can cause fear, anxiety, confusion, and distress in children. Monitor exposure to these events through TV, the internet, and social media and restrict as needed.
Help children understand that violence is never a solution to a problem: As traumatic violent events can often be linked to failure properly to address feelings and problems, these events can act as teachable moments to discuss how to approach tough issues they may be dealing with in their own lives. Let them know that you are available to help them and that violence should never be an option to deal with issues they may be having.
Know each child experiences and expresses emotions differently: For survivors and/or children, who may have lost someone in these tragic circumstances, know that children may react differently depending on age and temperament.
Seek help for you and your child(ren) if needed: Know that resources are available for you and your family in helping to process and recover from traumatic events. Contact your children’s school or seek help from a mental health professional if you need it.