NEWTOWN TRAGEDY: Recommendations for Coping with the Psychological Aftermath

December 17, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

Newton collage

By Anne Conway

Anne ConwayHave you found yourself glued to the television watching updates on the Newtown shooting and aftermath? Are you having trouble sleeping and finding yourself overwhelmed by the idea of sending your child to school? Is your child is asking you questions about the tragedy to which you just don't know how to respond? Is your child frightened to go to school? Do you feel as if your anxiety level has increased significantly since the shooting occurred?

Reactions such as these can be quite common following a tragedy even when we are physically distant from the site of a disaster or an attack. They reflect what is known as "distant trauma." For example, research shows that individuals across the nation experienced stress-related symptoms after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Such symptoms generally resolve very quickly as children and adults are quite resilient. 

Some individuals, however, may react with greater stress than others. For example, individuals with mental health problems, and those who have experienced trauma in the past, may experience higher levels of stress. It is important for individuals, family members, teachers, and social workers to watch for signs that may reflect heightened stress or problems with coping.

Often, heightened stress levels are observed in difficulties or changes in sleeping patterns. In a study conducted by our research group here at Columbia and at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, we found that even young toddlers 500 miles away from the site of the 9/11 attacks experienced higher levels of sleep problems and crying than they manifested at an earlier age. In adults and even young children, difficulties or changes in sleep can suggest the presence of stress. Young children may also cry more, separate more reluctantly from parents, or not want to go to school. Parents may have trouble letting their children go off to school or separating from their children.

In the wake of the tragedy at the Sandyhook Elementary School, here are some steps you can take that should make a positive difference to yourself, your children or others who are feeling especially vulnerable:

  1. Shut off the TV. With a strong desire to follow each detail, some may have difficulty turning away from the TV. Often people feel compelled to follow many details because it may make them feel in control as they search for signs that they are now safe. Yet, watching excessive TV coverage of traumatic events often has the opposite effect: it makes people feel more stressed, and in some cases it retraumatizes them. Thus it is important to minimize exposure to traumatic images.* To reduce feelings of helplessness, one can channel concerns into empowering, positive steps and begin talking with neighbors and friends about how to address this problem that faces our communities.
    *Although online coverage of the Olympic games provided "spoiler alerts," there are currently no warnings for online articles regarding upsetting content such as details about the shootings, pictures of the young victims, etc.  Without such warnings, it can be difficult to reduce one's exposure and children's exposure to the graphic details of the traumatic events on online sources. Under these circumstances, one could elect to follow only media outlets and online newspapers that provide such warnings or tend not to provide graphic details.
  2. Practice healthy sleep behaviors. For example, before bedtime, it is important to wind-down to get ready for bed. Watching stressful, upsetting images of trauma before bed can be overstimulating and distressing, and can interfere with the ability to fall asleep or get a restful night sleep. It is important to stop following coverage of the story for at least one to two hours before bedtime. Taking a bath or reading a book can help prevent overstimulation and stress before bedtime.
  3. Pay special attention to young children and beware of signs of stress. One-, two- or three-year-olds can be very perceptive and pick up when their parents are in distress, without even knowing what has occurred. They just know that their parent is upset. It is important to be aware of this and try to manage your own reactions to distressing events.
  4. Be attentive to children's needs and be willing to talk with them about the event if they have questions. If children ask you about the event, it is first important to find out what they know about the event. Listen to your children and the concerns they have. Letting them express their emotions is important. (They may also want to do this through drawing or play.) Reassuring them that they are safe is also important.

In sum, parents should monitor their children to see if they are crying more than usual or having difficulties sleeping—and if it does not resolve, contact their pediatrician or other health professional.

Likewise, school social workers, teachers, and other school professionals can help by reassuring children and parents that they are safe in the school. Letting parents know that you have an emergency plan in place, and allowing them the opportunity to contact you with any questions they may have, will signal your awareness of their needs and the fact that you regard the safety of their child and other students as paramount.

Mental health professionals and youth workers should also be aware that some of their clients may have higher stress levels following traumatic events such as mass violence, disasters, and terrorist attacks. Indeed, the stress of such events may be associated with an increase in symptoms or possibly precipitate a relapse of a pre-existing mental health conditions or trauma. Helping those who are distressed by allowing them to express their emotions, encouraging them to reduce or eliminate media exposure of traumatic events, engage in healthy behaviors such as physical activity and social connections with others, and maintain healthy sleep patterns should hasten their recovery.

To reiterate, although stress-related symptoms can be experienced even in those far away from the site of an attack, adults and children are very resilient, and most recover very quickly. In a few cases, however, adults or children may react with high levels of stress and have difficulties coping. It is, therefore, important for caregivers to be aware and monitor difficult reactions to traumatic events that they or their children may experience. These simple steps may help people cope.

Recommended Resources:

A number of resources are available to provide additional information to families and professionals. Some of these include:

This tragedy affects the Columbia University School of Social Work and surrounding community very deeply. As the oldest school of social work in the country, our faculty and administration consists of leading national experts in the areas of social policy, clinical practice, community organizing, administration, and global/international social work. Now is the time that we must all come together and work collectively with parents, children, local citizens, community leaders, teachers, business leaders, politicians, religious leaders, and our neighbors throughout the world to address these issues that are affecting the safety of the nation's students. We invite readers to share their comments and suggestions. What do we need to do to make our schools and communities safe for our children and for ourselves?

Anne Conway is an assistant professor of social work at the Columbia University School of Social Work who conducts research on emotional and cognitive development and mental health in children and youth. Dr. Conway and her colleagues have recently completed a study documenting the effects of 9/11 on young toddlers and their parents.

Images: (Top) Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons (by Victor Bezrukov); (bottom) from Morguefiles.