We had the most atrocious of events occur on Friday 12/14/12, a gunman invaded an elementary school right here in Newtown, CT and killed 26 people, 20 of whom were babies in cold blood.
Where do we start? How can we make sense of this? How do we manage through the deep grief, and sadness?
Not one of us can escape the thought of “what would I have done if the police told me my child was in that school, gunned down and lost to me forever?”
What would I do with those Christmas gifts? How would I get through the day, the week, the year and my life?
No words can fully comfort, but our first step is to acknowledge our grief, our sadness and our fear. We have to first take our own feelings into account, like on the airlines, first, put your oxygen mask on yourself then help others near you.
Take a deep breath, reach out to other adults and share your feelings, ask for reassurance and welcome support. We need to be hugged, reassured and loved too.
When you are in a stable emotional place, you can talk to your child. What I am about to talk about has to be age appropriate.
Too much exposure to the media, and too much talk about this subject is not healthy for little ones, say 4-10 year olds. My children are teens so they have the resiliency to listen and step back emotionally.
With little ones, clear, honest and simple with few details is ok. Such as “a bad person went to a school in CT and killed a bunch of kids and adults”. “This is a bad thing that happened but you are safe here and at your school”
Let your child express fear or trepidation and validate that feeling. “ Yes I understand, it is hard to hear this and it is scary”.
The big message is “I am here for you, I am the adult and can handle scary stuff, you are safe with me” and “you will be safe at school and we go to school to learn and have fun, and that won’t stop”
In truth, as much as I am becoming an advocate for gun control, these events are not the norm. Day to day school activities continue and are good for kids.
Ok, here is the special sauce. Once you have had some time to speak with your child about what is going on with them, ask:
"How do you feel?"
"Where do you feel this emotion?"
Inquire about the physical felt sense in their bodies of emotions; such as “I feel fear in the pit of my stomach”. (All of our emotions are experienced in our physical bodies and it is an important life long skillset to identify and express our emotions to our loved ones).
“Lets talk about it more..”
“I am here for you and want to listen.”
“How are you feeling now?”
“Do you feel better now that you have talked with me?”
“If you feel better, where do you feel better in your body?”
“I am here for you and want you to feel safe and secure..”
I call this “closing the loop”, or “sealing the envelope” in therapy. It is about processing the experience of emotions and acknowledging the relief of sharing intense emotional experiences with a safe emotionally connected adult. This is one of the best skillsets you can possibly teach your child for life long emotional resiliency.
You want to make sure your child is feeling relieved and has had a positive experience talking about and locating their feelings or felt sense of the event.
The big message here is your job as a parent is to create safety and security for your children. You will need to conquer your fears with other adults first, but around your children your job is to be the strong, calm and capable adult.
When you can communicate with your child that all is ok, here with you, loaded with lots of hugs, snuggling and quiet time, your child will feel supported and safe again. You will all feel far less anxious and you will be teaching your children how to cope with life’s crisis. When we are emotionally resilient, our children will learn to be as well.