"Get ready! Stations are asking for interviews!" Within an hour of the mass murder of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was asked by the media to address inevitable key questions. The very first question was: "When families are sitting around the dinner table tonight, what should parents say to their children?" The follow-up question was, "How can parents help children who have been traumatized by what they've heard or personally experienced."
Because HOPE FOR THE HEART is a biblical counseling ministry, we have continued to receive many requests for real answers ... practical answers ... biblically based answers. My personal prayer is that the following 12 points will help you ... and help you help others – both now and in the future.
12 Steps to Help Children Following Trauma
1. Attend to Your Own Emotional State.
• Be aware of your own distraught feelings and fears. Being overly emotional can frighten your child as much as the trauma itself, so make sure you are emotionally ready to help your child. You can express your personal sadness, "Truthfully I feel sad, but I'm so grateful you are safe – totally safe."
• Don't hesitate to ask an emotionally secure family member (a special grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin) to be present with your child for a period of time. Meanwhile, soften your tone of voice and ease your own emotional responses by repeating to yourself, "When I am afraid, I put my trust in you" (Psalm 56:3 NIV).
2. Ask General Questions.
• "What do you know about the (trauma) ?" "How do you feel about what happened?" Listen for your child's concerns and interpretations of what happened.
• "Do you have any questions?" Truthfully answer any questions your child has, especially regarding safety and immediate plans. But do not provide graphic details about the incident. There will be plenty of time for telling stories, drawing pictures, or doing dramatizations about it.
3. Be Physically Affectionate.
• During traumatic times, children tend to cling more and feel anxious about separation. Therefore, children feel the need to be in close proximity to parents, to curl up in their laps, and possibly to even sleep with them – temporarily.
• Because your touch represents safety, touch them often, be tender, stroke their hair, hold their hand, kiss their cheek, wrap your arms around them, roughhouse and have fun with them.
4. Keep Your Child Calm with Words of "Safety".
• If your child shows signs of shock or daze, provide a sufficient interlude of quiet and rest ... a time apart with no other activities.
• Reassure your child of his or her safety. "The police, the school and many others are working to make sure you are safe." Help your child to be calm by modeling calm, steady behavior.
5. Address Your Child's Traumatic Reactions.
• Children often begin to cry or tremble as they come out of shock. Explain that, "Crying is okay – it is a normal healthy reaction."
• Don't say, "Don't cry!" Instead, hold your child, saying, "You are safe," and allow the physical expression of distress to continue until it levels out and then stops on its own.
6. Practice Togetherness as a Family.
• Children need you physically close to them to feel they are safe and to believe you are there for them.
• Pull together as a family, and simply be together, talk together, play together, process together and pray together.
7. Restore a Regular Routine as Soon as Possible.
• Familiarity, predictability and sameness are comforting because a regular routine provides a sense of normalcy, and therefore, the feeling of safety for children.
• Initially, don't allow children to watch TV reports so that they won't see the tragedy replayed over and over. Do not talk with others about the trauma in "earshot" of children. Later, you can watch news reports with them to help them process the information. Overexposure can be overwhelming, and may leave your child feeling helpless and may cause nightmares, excessive bouts of crying, deepening fears, or with no desire to leave home.
8. Look for Signs of Unresolved Trauma.
• Inability to concentrate in school, fearful shyness and withdrawal, uncontrollable rage, compulsive mannerisms, excessive confusion, thrashing while asleep, bedwetting, hyperactivity, belligerence and nausea can all be signs of unresolved trauma.
• Refusal to talk about the trauma or becoming anxious when mentioned indicates the need for resolution. Likewise, an inability to stop talking about the incident is also sign of continued distress.
9. Guide Your Child's Attention to Any Unusual Sensation.
• Ask, "How does your tummy feel (head, arms, legs)? Do you feel different anywhere in your body?" If so, ask for location, size, shape, weight.
• Let your child feel a sense of control during the questioning by not forcing responses. Allow sufficient time of silence between questions – even up to a minute – for your child to process answers. Take a break, if necessary.
10. Encourage Questions and Answer Them in a Healthy Way.
• Avoid graphic details but don't skirt around what happened, "It's good for you to ask questions and talk about what you are thinking and feeling." Realize that talking, writing and drawing about the trauma won't perpetuate fearful reactions but will help to dissipate them.
• Don't offer pat answers, ("It can't get worse." ... "Everything will get back to normal.") Instead, engage in age appropriate discussion, repeating the facts correctly but without obsessing about them. Give children verbal assurances, "This is a difficult time, but as a family we will get through this."
11. Reinforce Your Family's Personal Safety Plan.
• Be sure your child is aware of procedures to be followed in an emergency. Practice carrying out the safety plan that is in place for your family.
• Identify the specific people responsible for their safety and how they can be contacted, "In case of an emergency, this is who you need to call and the phone number will always be right here."
12. Speak Truth to Your Child.
• Because fear of the unknown can paralyze children, safeguard their hearts by saying, "Sometimes bad people do bad things. But now you are safe – completely safe."
• Since children absorb the thoughts and feelings of their parents, ground yourself in the truth of God's presence and confidently share the promise of Deuteronomy 31:8, "The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged."