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How to deal with the aftermath of tragedy

Modified: Thursday, Dec 20th, 2012

Watsonville police are shown in a recent training for how to deal with an active shooter at a school campus. (Contributed photo).
(With deep sadness following the Newtown Conn. Tragedy, the following information is intended to provide helpful resources and tips to protect children from the emotional trauma of violence.)

The recent tragedy in Connecticut is so unfathomable it seems like a terrible dream we just can’t wake up from. But violence in our schools, the workplace and other locations is an unfortunate reality and something the police and schools have had to prepare for.

As evidenced during the Watsonville Big 5 Sporting Goods incident in June 2011, time is of the essence when dealing with what has now become known as “active shooter” situations. In these often tense and rapidly unfolding encounters, first responders are counted on to run to the danger and stop the threat as soon as possible.

With policies and procedures in place to serve as guidelines, no two situations are the same, which means officers must immediately decide what to do often under a multitude of difficult circumstances.

Like schools and police, the community must too have a plan and be mentally prepared for the unthinkable. In the Big 5 incident, the store manager kept a cool head while reporting the play-by-play details to the emergency 911 operator, all the while making sure her employees got to safety. Her quick action, and the specialized training our officers possessed, saved lives that day.

Airline pilot and hero Sully Sullenberger, who performed the miraculous emergency landing of a jetliner on the Hudson River, explains it this way: “The facts tell us what to do and how to do it, but it is our humanity which tells us that we must do something and why we must do it.”

How we respond to emergencies of any nature will be determined by our innate concern for others and by how much thought and time has been given to preparedness. The more we train, the more confidence we will have when that time comes. Emergency drills, mental preparation and seeking the advice of trained professionals are just some of the things we can do to better our chances of surviving a dangerous situation.

As children hear more details about the Sandy Hook Elementary incident, they may feel worried and scared. Kids need our support and our love, not our anxiety, grief, rage and fear.

The loss of precious lives in Newtown is a terrible tragedy. Together, we can work to reduce additional trauma resulting from this horrific event. Pay attention to children or adults who seem to have a difficult time in dealing with others. Be a positive in their life, listen deeply to what they are saying and know who to turn to for help.

Our good friends at Kidpower.org serve as a resource for police and others looking at how best to deal with the emotional impact in the wake of tragedy.

Kidpower is a global non-profit leader based in Santa Cruz, and are experts in teaching practical personal safety skills to protect people of all ages and abilities from all forms of violence including bullying, molestation and abduction.

Here are a few tips Kidpower would like to offer to help see our loved ones through this tragedy:

1. Shield children as best you can.  

Seeing and hearing about horrific events is traumatizing for people at any age. The response to traumatic events often continues long after the tragedy itself.

Try to protect children from hearing or seeing news reports about tragic events like this one. Turn off the radio in the car when experts are analyzing what happened even if your child seems to be involved doing something else in the back seat. Turn off your favorite news show on TV when your kids are in the room. Unless there is an immediate emergency where you must know what is happening for your family’s safety, getting the news can wait.

Interrupt friends, colleagues, parents, teachers, or other adults who start to express their feelings about what happened when children are around by saying, “Excuse me. Let’s make a different time to talk about this.”  Then, change the subject.

2. Acknowledge children’s feelings without burdening them with your own.

 Let them tell you their feelings and respond with compassionate, acknowledging statements. “Yes, this is very sad. Yes, this is scary.”

 How you act is going to make a big difference in the impact on your children. No matter how you feel inside, take a breath and decide to stay calm and hopeful in front of your kids, projecting the messages that they are safe and everything is in control.

Get support for your own upset and overwhelmed feelings with other adults in settings away from your kids. Remember that your children can overhear your conversations even if you are on the telephone in another part of the room, and they seem to be playing and not paying attention.

 Think carefully before bringing children to memorials and vigils where adults are actively grieving. For children who are very aware of what happened and feel sad, you can help them express their feelings through listening to them, encouraging them to make drawings about their feelings, and telling hopeful stories about dealing with different kinds of loss.

 3. Answer questions in reassuring, age-appropriate ways.  

For younger children, keep it very simple: “This almost never happens. The person who did this won’t be able to do it again. We are all working together to make sure your school is safe.”  The articles below provide answers to more complicated questions that might be troubling older children.


4. Give extra love and attention. 

Raise the issue if you think your child has heard about it and watch for signals that your child might be worrying and not telling you. Remember that kids, like many adults, often do not express upset feelings directly and might regress, be irritable, whiny, clingy, or demanding instead.

Even if a child doesn’t seem troubled, spend extra time with your kids over the next few days, having fun being together, listening to what they tell you, noticing any changes in behavior, and giving extra reassurance about any kind of worries, no matter how small.

Some children will not seem to be affected at first but will start to think about what happened and become increasingly upset about it over time. They might seem fine and then suddenly be afraid to go back to school after the holidays. Seek professional help if a child shows signs of lasting anxiety.

 Kidpower’s free online library of personal safety resources has articles that may help adults who are faced with worried and scared kids and can be found at Kidpower.org.

Kidpower is working to reach parents with reassurance and advice on how best to minimize the trauma for kids and help them go back to school feeling safe.

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