Reacting to a Tragedy: Coping With the Shooting in Connecticut

Today, we are all Newtowners. When I found out about the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, I didn’t react as a physician, but as a father of four kids. Even though most of my children are grown now, I still remember the time when they were as little as the victims of last week’s terrible events. I remember Lisa and I taking them to their elementary school in New Jersey – a place we both assumed would be safe. On Friday, I went to Newtown to attend the vigil and to stand in solidarity and solemn remembrance of those who were lost. I talked with people in the community. I wanted to help in any way I could and that meant making Newtown our highest priority. Today, we are dedicating the show to helping our nation – a nation in post-traumatic stress – heal.

While we come together and recover from yet another shooting in our great nation, we must first think about how we can reach out to those who are directly affected by this tragedy: the family and friends of those who were killed and the other children who witnessed an undoubtedly life-changing event.

We must also process what happened for ourselves and explain it to our own children, many of whom were already exposed to the tragedy on television, the Internet and social media. This is important because even if you were not directly affected by the shooting, you can still feel the psychological impact of the stress and feelings of hopelessness.

Dr. Sudeepta Varma, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, advocates the importance of recognizing and remedying the psychological effects of tragedies. “Sometimes the effects of a shooting won’t unfold until days or weeks afterward. Those symptoms can manifest as acute stress disorder, which not only affects people who are directly involved with traumatic events.” Dr. Varma is no stranger to helping people recover from national tragedies. She served as the founding medical director to the World Trade Center Mental Health Program at NYU, treating victims of 9/11, and she is a valuable member of my medical advisory board and a member of the public affairs committee of the New York County branch of the American Psychiatric Association.

“Research done after the September 11 attacks revealed that people who weren’t even in New York had symptoms of acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. These symptoms include feelings of hypervigillence, hyperarrousal, increased feelings of irritability, depression, numbness, and detachment from the outside world.” She and I both believe that we, as adults, must recognize these symptoms and do our best to get professional help.

However, parents must also find the best ways to help our children recover as well. Many were also at school while this tragedy unfolded and may feel scared or unsafe. For example, in the evening after the tragedy, a father from the Newtown community took his children to a restaurant, and his 3-year-old son asked him if a gunman was waiting outside for them. The father, like many other parents, had to find a way to make their children feel safe and secure.

Many children don’t have the emotional capacity to process such traumatic information. Dr. Varma advises, “In the days and weeks after the tragedy, you may notice children saying they have difficulty sleeping and separating from their parents. They may become more withdrawn, act out more frequently — especially if they are constantly exposed to the events on the television. To prevent this, parents should limit what children are watching on TV. They may not be able to emotionally process the tragic information. Research has shown a correlation between the number of hours of watching TV and the severity of stress symptoms.”

As a parent myself, I can understand the urge to shield our children from the effects of the real world. However, because we live in an information-driven society, it’s impossible to shield them from all bad news, as many kids get their information from outside the home. Here are some tips from the  NYU Child Study Center for helping your child process information about the shooting and feel safe.

  • Limit your children’s exposure to television coverage, as Dr. Varma advises. Repeated exposure to the same event can worsen the stress – especially for children. When talking about the tragedy to other adults, be cognisant of children who may be listening. Try to be present when older children are watching news coverage, so you can listen to their reactions and concerns.
  • Maintain your usual routine, as “familiarity brings comfort and helps children feel safe and in control.” Keep mealtimes and bedtimes consistent, and explain any needed changes to any routines. You may want to drive them to school instead of letting them walk or spend more time at home with them. That’s okay, as long as those modifications are appropriate for you and your children.
  • If your child asks questions about the shooting, try to be confident about your thoughts regarding the tragedy, and above all, be honest and try not to hide information. “Hiding information causes children to be mistrustful rather than comforted,” says Dr. Varma.
  • “Model appropriate coping behavior,” advises Dr. Varma. Remember you must find a way to process the tragedy for yourself as well. You should “acknowledge upsetting feelings without minimizing them, but also discuss ways to manage concerns. Provide an environment for ongoing conversations; talking about being afraid doesn’t make a person more afraid.”

In the aftermath of the shooting in Newtown, Dr. Varma suggests “giving back, reaching out through volunteer work, collecting donations, and raising awareness of the stigma related to mental health issues.” “We see that altruism is one of the key factors in recovery from trauma,” says Dr. Varma. “By doing this, you can teach your children the best way to appropriately react to national tragedies – with love instead of fear or hate.”