Responding to the Connecticut School Shooting: Six “T’s” for Helping Kids through Trauma
Tim Clinton, Ed.D., LPC, LMFT
Today, an unspeakable tragedy took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Fox News reports that 26 people are dead; 20 of the victims are elementary age children. It’s horrifying, mind-boggling and surreal—an unspeakable evil and every parent’s nightmare.
Pray for the families of the victims and the entire community of Newtown during this confusing and desperate time. Around the dinner table tonight, there will be many conversations about why tragedies like this happen… and questions from kids about whether or not they’re safe, especially at school.
As one mother on the scene put it, “I’m in a state of shock. I don’t know how I’m going to handle having [my daughter] know… about the whole situation.”
Trauma is best understood as any event that shatters our sense of safety. Immediately, one can become hyper vigilant—overly sensitive and set on emotional alert. Fear rules, especially in kids. The pictures online screamed of the horror. In these moments, children need adults who are attuned to their emotions and tender to their needs.
Six “T’s” for Helping Kids through Trauma
Togetherness. This is a night where your kids need to have you close. They need to know they’re safe. Pull in together as a family. Pray together. Be together. The antidote to trauma is safe, loving relationships. Coddle your children a little bit more. Stay in close proximity to them, particularly if they’re anxious or afraid.
Touch and Tenderness. Touch is an expression of affection that reinforces proximity and closeness. It produces a calming affect. Fear makes our minds race and wander, but tender touch dispels it. Hold a hand. Stroke your children’s hair. Let them sit in your lap. Wrap your arms around them. Kiss them. Be present emotionally. If they’re acting out a little bit with anger, rebellion or defiance, it very well could be a fear response. Be sensitive to their behavior.
Talk. The questions will come: “Will a shooter come to my school?” “Why did he hurt those kids?” Be present, sensitive, and don’t offer pat answers. Engage them in age-appropriate discussion. Contrary to what many of us believe, talk doesn’t perpetuate anxiety—it helps to reduce it. Avoid graphic details, but don’t skirt around the issue. Become a safe place for them to bring their questions.
Truth. Fears of the unknown can paralyze us. Anchor their hearts in truths like, “Not everyone in the world is bad. You’re safe now. God loves us and is close to us.” Remember, our kids absorb us. Your mood, thoughts, and actions directly influence theirs. These truths flow through you—Mom and/or Dad. Share the promises of God’s Word with your kids. Pray for, and with, them.
Triggers. Someone screaming. A door slamming. A siren. What children experience or see on the news can deeply affect them. Don’t let your kids get overdosed with the news stories and all the gory details. This can lead to nightmares, excessive bouts of crying, deepening fear, and not wanting to attend school. Be attuned to your children. Don’t react to their emotions, respond lovingly.
Time. Don’t rush or ignore this process. Over the next several days, we will all be flooded with information about the shooting. Keep your life as normal as possible. Sameness and routine reinforce the message of safety for your kids. Your family stability over time will help dispel their fears.
Our children are not immune to the darkness and brokenness of our world. We may think that if we ignore this incident, our kids won’t know about it or feel the impact. Nothing could be further from the truth! Our kids need parents and teachers—those who have influence in their lives—to be emotionally present and invested, especially in moments like these.
Tim Clinton, Ed.D., (The College of William and Mary) is President of the nearly 50,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), the largest and most diverse Christian counseling association in the world. He is Professor of Counseling and Pastoral Care, and Executive Director of the Center for Counseling and Family Studies at Liberty University. Licensed in Virginia as both a Professional Counselor (LPC) and Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), Tim now spends a majority of his time working with Christian leaders and professional athletes. He is recognized as a world leader in faith and mental health issues and has authored or co-authored 20 books including his latest, Break Through: When to Give In, How to Push Back. Most importantly, Tim has been married 32 years to his wife Julie and together they have two children, Megan and Zach.