Advice for helping kids cope with Pittsburgh massacre and other traumatic news

A memorial vigil Sunday at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains. Photo by the synagogue.
A memorial vigil Sunday at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains. Photo by the synagogue.
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From NewBridge Services in Parsippany:

Helping Kids Cope After Another Mass Shooting and Other Scary Events

PARSIPPANY TWP. (Oct. 29, 2018) — The anti-Semitic massacre at a Pittsburgh, PA, synagogue Saturday that claimed 11 lives. Nine sick children dying from infection at a Passaic County health facility. A blaze in Dover that left 80 people homeless and destroyed six businesses. Back-to-back hurricanes that decimated communities in the Southeast. Mail bombs.

The onslaught of bad news is not only causing angst in adults, it’s affecting children — even young ones. That feeling of helplessness can be magnified in children, but parents have the power to help reduce the impact of trauma their kids are exposed to or actually experience.

Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty addresses memorial vigil at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, Oct. 28, 2018. Photo by synagogue.
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty addresses memorial vigil at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, Oct. 28, 2018. Photo by synagogue.

“Children on the whole are resilient when they feel loved and cared for,” said Mary Vineis, NewBridge Services Director of Community Response and Education and coordinator of the Morris County Traumatic Loss Coalition.

“One of the most important things parents can do is to assure their children that they will keep them safe.”

Parents should process an event before speaking to their children about it so they can role-model coping skills, Vineis said. “If you tell your child ‘everything is OK’ but your behavior expresses fear and powerlessness, your child will pick up on that,” she said.

Keep it Simple

It’s best to start a conversation by asking a child what he’s heard. (Hopefully the parent will be the first to inform her child.)

“Encourage them to ask questions, listen for their fears and concerns, and gently correct any misinformation they have,” Vineis said.

Keep the explanation simple, especially for little children. More specifics can be provided to older children, but it will take them time to process the information, and may lead to follow-up questions.

Limit Media Exposure

NewBridge Chief Operating Officer Michelle Borden, a licensed clinical social worker, urged parents to limit their children’s media exposure; television news often shows graphic images repeatedly, which can be very disturbing.

Morris County Sheriff James Gannon at memorial vigil for victims of Pittsburgh massacre; at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, Oct. 28, 2018. Photo by the synagogue.
Morris County Sheriff James Gannon at memorial vigil for victims of Pittsburgh massacre; at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, Oct. 28, 2018. Photo by the synagogue.

Borden suggested parents screen news accounts first, whether they’re on television, in print or online.

“That gives you more control about what your child is exposed to,” Vineis said.

“Let your children know that it is normal to feel upset about what happened,” Borden said. Parents should also express empathy for the people affected and talk about the heroes, including first-responders, who helped save lives.

Take Action

Parents should reassure their children that they are safe and the risk of such events happening to the family is very low, Borden said. Many families find solace in taking action such as donating money to a cause or volunteering, or participating in a community vigil.

Be Patient

Expect that children may very well show signs of stress. They may be irritable, have trouble sleeping, and change their eating habits, but those reactions should subside within two or three weeks. “Give your children extra patience, care and love,” she said.

If those behaviors don’t subside or if they appear weeks after the event, parents should seek professional help. Call NewBridge at 973-366-9333 or visit NewBridge.org.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides an age-by-age guide for parents and other caregivers on how to talk with children in the wake of a traumatic event. Visit https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA12-4732/SMA12-4732.pdf.

Here are some tips:

Preschool children, through age 5:

Give these very young children a lot of cuddling and verbal support:
Take a deep breath before holding or picking them up, and focus on them, not the trauma.

Get down to their eye level and speak in a calm, gentle voice using words they can understand.

Tell them that you still care for them and will continue to take care of them so they feel safe.

Children ages 6 to 19:

Nurture children and youth in this age group:

Ask your child or the children in your care what worries them and what might help them cope.

Offer comfort with gentle words, a hug when appropriate, or just your presence.

Spend more time with the children than usual, even for a short while. Returning to school activities and getting back to routines at home is important too.

Excuse traumatized children from chores for a day or two. After that, make sure they have age-appropriate tasks and can participate in a way that makes them feel useful.

Support children spending time with friends or having quiet time to write or create art.
Encourage children to participate in recreational activities so they can move around and play with others.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides tips on how to talk to children about hate crimes and anti-Semitism.

About NewBridge

NewBridge Services, a 501c(3) nonprofit, is a premier provider of counseling services, housing and educational programs in northern New Jersey serving more than 8,000 adults and seniors last year alone. NewBridge treats mental illnesses and addictions; teaches skills for coping with stress, grief and challenging relationships; builds and manages affordable housing; offers school-based programs that teach children and adolescents resiliency skills for healthy emotional development; helps young adults succeed in their education and prepare for careers; and supports seniors so they can remain independent. Throughout its more than 55-year history, NewBridge has remained true to its mission of bringing balance to people’s lives by tracking shifts in communities’ needs and providing innovative, effective programs to meet them.

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