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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Newtown: What Can Parents Do When They Are At A Loss For Words??

Thought for the Day: As the cold hard facts of the tragedy in Newtown CT are revealed on the news, the pictures are heartbreaking.  We all struggle to make sense of a senseless crime against defenseless children & teachers. There are more questions than answers swirling in everyone's heads. Some of the questions may never be answered. In this day & age with television's instantaneous reports, when trauma strikes we are all traumatized. Parents watch horrified & do not know what to say to their children. Today I will share some thoughts & coping skills, but I will also raise tough questions & would like to hear your thoughts as well. (It is a longer post, but bear with me & make sure you read the questions at the end.)

I became a reluctant expert on helping children & families deal with trauma when I was a young psychology student working on my Master's thesis in Israel when the Yom Kippur War broke out. I was also a young parent of two whose husband was in the reserves for close to a year. Hundreds of school children lost their fathers in reserve units like my husband's in the Sinai. My professor, Dr. Esther Halpern, was also my adviser on my Master's Thesis. She encouraged me to focus my thesis on ways to help children cope with war, father absence & the death of a parent during war.

I remember my concern about doing research on the subject. How could I ask children who had recently lost their fathers about how they felt about their father's death & then disappear from their lives?  She told me that as a psychologist & I would need to talk to children & adults about all kinds of difficult issues in their lives & that if a child needed additional help we would let the teachers know. She also asked if I had ever spoken to a teacher or even a stranger who had touched my life & helped me even though we only spoke once. I will never forget how grateful & surprised those children were that I asked them about their fathers. They told me that most people avoided talking to them about their fathers at all. I believe the interviews helped those children cope with their loss.

It is far more pleasant to work with people on reaching for their dreams, however, there is a time & a place for everything. Although I am a pacifist, the lessons I learned about disasters & war, have been used each time tragedy rears it's head. When it occurs,  I know I can help people through the worst of times. I am a strong believer in finding words & other ways to help people cope with loss & tragedy. I may be the only psychologist in the USA who asks every new client how they were impacted by 9/11 & the wars that have followed, but I know that the impact of trauma can be felt many years later.
Elementary School & Gunman are words we don't expect to see in the same sentence
No matter how many times I have helped people in the midst of a tragedy, I too am at first blindsided by feelings of terror, anger, sorrow, shock & disbelief. Although words fail us as adults, we must find the strength to help one another & our children through the tragedy.  When words fail us, being there, holding one another, saying that we do not know what to say is important, both for the mourners & for their supporters. We must find ways to express our feelings, since we cannot cope with our feelings if we do not know what they are.

On Friday, I was called by Cigna EAP & asked to help  employees working at a corporation in Stamford who live in Newtown. I rescheduled my clients & will be there Monday & Tuesday. Late last night a journalist, LA Bachelor , who lives in North Carolina, but was raised in Connecticut, called & asked me to come on his radio show to address what parents can do to help their children following this tragedy. We spoke at length & I look forward to helping his listeners on Monday 6-8 PM. Just two weeks ago I was speaking on another radio show helping parents struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Given my experience, stepping up to the plate & speaking or volunteering to help using my expertise, is one of my coping mechanisms. You too can find ways to help that will help the survivors & help you at the same time. (I will post the information about the radio show, where you can call in questions as well.) (Post a comment & your e-mail if you would like to be informed about the show.)

Those of you who have been reading my posts know that volunteerism & activism is something that I encourage & support. It is too soon for solutions, but it is important to ask the tough questions & that we all advocate to make changes that will help prevent tragedies like Newtown from happening. Let your children know that you will be searching for answers, asking the questions of your leaders, & fighting for programs that will help.

I saw the movie Lincoln last night & was struck by the parallels between President Lincoln's challenges facing the tragedy of the Civil War & President Obama fighting tears as he consoled our nation following the tragedy in Newtown. We as citizens, parents & grandparents need to advocate for our leaders to help lead our country to find ways to prevent the senseless attacks on innocent people in schools, churches, & movie theaters.

We are all hearing about the fiscal crisis. Are we ignoring the mental health & emotional crisis that is plaguing our society? Are we placing too much emphasis on grades & academic achievement & ignoring the emotional well being of our children? Are we expecting knee jerk responses & band-aid solutions to work following tragedies when long term ongoing comprehensive programs are what's needed? The shooter in Newtown was around 10 years old when 9/11 occurred. In the news they are now saying that he had Asperger's syndrome or a personality disorder. How do trauma like 9/11 & the constant barrage of movies, video games & news coverage of violence impact on all children but in particular on those with emotional issues? As parents, you can demand more comprehensive crisis prevention programs to address all kinds of issues from bullying to learning differences, to prejudice & intolerance of differences. You can encourage the gun control debate about your children's rights for life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness versus the right of citizens' to bear arms including semi-automatic weapons.

Please feel free to comment & share your thoughts.

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