We’re not helpless. Parents can turn off the TV and talk to their kids. We can send more shrinks to schools.
That advice emerged Monday as U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Steve Marans, a Yale psychiatry professor, met in New Haven in response to Friday’s mass shooting in Newtown.
Marans called on the public to “turn helplessness and loss of control into a platform of action” to help kids and families exposed to violence.
Friday’s “unthinkable” tragedy—in which a gunman killed 20 young schoolchildren and six adults as well as himself—has been “overwhelming for all of us,” DeLauro said. So she convened the event Monday morning at the Child Study Center on South Frontage Road. She asked Marans, a professor at the Yale Child Study Center, to share advice on how to talk to kids about violence. Marans and his staff, who for years have worked alongside New Haven cops to help children exposed to violence, have been traveling to Newtown since the shooting to work with children there.
First, Marans said, an adult needs to “take care of oneself.”
That starts with “turning off the TV,” he said.
“It’s understandable why people want to watch a lot of TV,” Marans observed, but “our tendency to watch the same scenes over and over” can be unhealthy. “Dwelling on the thoughts and feelings that are stirred up by such a horrific event only keeps us activated at a biologic and physiological level. It fuels the nonstop thinking about the events and the helplessness.”
He called it the “live wire phenomenon.”
“If you grab hold of the live wire, you can’t let go,” he said. Exposure to too many “horrifying images and ideas locks us in a way we can’t free ourselves from.”
“Don’t get stuck,” Marans advised.
“The constant flood of TV news” is “not helpful” for kids either, he said. Instead of sitting glued to the screen, “people need to engage in their routines of daily life and they need to be with each other.”
Before talking to kids, adults need to talk to come to terms with their feelings, Marans advised. A tragedy like this one opens a “Pandora’s Box” of feelings, including terror and fear. Adults need to “think through whether the feelings of terror and fear are appropriate now.”
“There’s nothing that can take away from what happened,” Marans said. But “now the question is, is the threat that so many around the country can be feeling—is it immediate? And does it interfere with our ability to be there for our kids?
Second, Marans said, when approaching kids, start with what they know. A good way to broach the subject, Marans said, is to ask “What were kids talking about today in relation to the shootings?” or “Did it come up in school today?”
Ask the child what he or she knows about what happened. Correct any information that’s inaccurate. For example: Not all people with psychiatric illnesses commit mass shootings. And mass shootings are “extremely unusual.”
Third, he said, ask kids what their thoughts are. Words are “tools of mastery.” Letting kids articulate their feelings helps them master what they’re doing.
What if a kid asks, “Am I safe?”
It’s not enough to say that statistically, your child is unlikely to suffer a tragedy like the one in Newtown, Marans said. It’s important to acknowledge that the child’s feelings are “understandable” and normal. And then remind them of “all the things that are reliable and safe.” In times of tragedy, it’s especially important to continue routines, he said.
Some kids won’t want to talk about what happened, Marans added. They could be focused on their immediate world, which is fine, he said. Parents shouldn’t force kids to talk. But if they don’t want to, he advised, “keep your eyes open for signs of distress.” Those include stomachaches, headaches, trouble sleeping or eating. If you notice changes in your kids’ behavior, open the door for conversation with comments like, “I notice you’ve been having a tougher time than usual getting ready for school.”
Marans said he hopes Newtown tragedy serves to ignite a national conversation about the everyday trauma kids face. “Some kids are exposed to violence on a daily basis,” in their homes or communities. “Their experience of violence has gone unrecognized and untreated” for too long, he said.
Echoing President Obama’s remarks at a Sunday night vigil, Marans asked, “Are we doing enough?” The answer is no, he said.
“We can do nothing about what has happened on Friday. We can do something ... to help children, families and adults exposed to violence.”
DeLauro: Shrinks, Not Fortresses
“We have the responsibility to take a course of action,” she said.
DeLauro said there’s been plenty of discussion about gun control. She supports reviving the expired national ban on the sale of assault rifles, which included a ban on high-capacity gun magazines. She said the discussion about school security has its place.
But “rather than turning our schools into fortresses,” she said, schools should address a greater need—an absence of trained mental health professionals to help kids exposed to trauma.
“We ought to have mental health professionals in all of our schools,” she said.
Marans said when childhood trauma isn’t addressed, it snowballs into health care costs and loss of productivity due to incarceration down the road. He said groups like the Yale Child Study Center have found solutions that work.
“We have interventions that can turn kids’ and families’ lives around,” he said. “It’s like having discovered penicillin and not having it available.” He called for more training of school and mental health professionals in specific post-trauma interventions and more funding of research into how to implement the strategies.
Marans, president of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, sat on a national task force on the topic assembled by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The group came up with 56 recommendations— read them here.
“We have ways of responding to what happened in Newtown,” Marans said, and “to the violence that occurs every day. It’s time to make a decision on whether we’re going to deploy them in the way that they’re needed.”