After Newtown: How Does A Child Cope With Tragedy?
Kids, tragedy, the road to recovery, and the new normal
The Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, located in a low-rise suburb of San Antonio, has support groups for kids, adolescents and young adults most nights of the month, each addressing a different topic. Chronic illness. Murder. Suicide. Loss of a sibling. Loss of a parent. There are even “little people” versions of these groups, for children ages 3 to 5.
In support groups, as well as the individual and family counseling sessions, the staff helps kids find ways to express their emotions. For some, it will be in the playroom, using a stuffed animal and a dollhouse. For others, it will be in the art studio, where colors are assigned to emotions. Most of the kids choose blue for sadness.
Who knew we would ever need a children’s support group for “elementary school shootings”? But in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, CT, where 20 first grade students and 6 staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary were gunned down, this is our new normal. When you consider the ripple effect from just one of the lost children—their little classmates, friends, siblings, cousins, and neighbors—the number of young minds trying to make sense of this horror is considerable.
Compounding the issue is that Newtown is a national tragedy. It has turned America, from sea to shining sea, into one big support group for kids. So understanding how a child copes with tragedy, and our role in their recovery, is imperative.
Age plays a big role in how kids process loss. For a preschooler, death is viewed as a “magical,” if not reversible, condition. For a kid approximately the age of the Sandy Hook victims, death is sometimes seen as an actual being, a “boogeyman” of sorts.
“Adults have the capacity to see future events. So for an adult, it’s, ‘There is a future. Things can get better,” explains Michelle Palmer, a licensed professional counselor and play therapist at the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas. “But young kids don’t have the capacity to see future events—it’s all about here and now. They’re also egocentric. It’s all about them. So when they’re grieving something like [the Newtown tragedy], the thinking is, “Am I next? Is this going to happen again tomorrow?”
When feelings like this aren’t addressed or go unnoticed, “that’s when you get the stomachaches and headaches, or it manifests in behavior. Separation anxiety begins. Kids don’t have the tools to work through it verbally,” explains Palmer. She recommends letting your child talk or not talk as needed, answer questions honestly and concretely, and respect their “need to know.” Having information gives them some sense of control.