It is hard not to talk about trauma in this column, following first the recent tragic death of our own Chris Breeze and now the terrible school shooting news from Newtown, CT. Trauma is unavoidable, because no amount of training or precautions can prevent totally unexpected accidents or violence. Most likely, the Newtown school had emergency plans and escape routes and lock-out procedures, just like every school has, including our own; most likely lots of people survived thanks to such plans; obviously the staff was brave and determined to keep their students safe, and still… The fact is that safety is terribly elusive. As parents and as teachers, we keep try to make the children in our care feel safe, so that they can enjoy life and be ready to learn and grow from properly-sized challenges. Comes the death of a parent, comes the death of 20 kids from another school, and everyone's sense of safety is badly shaken. We can and certainly should calmly assure children that the chances of their loosing a parent or of their being caught in a shooting are few, but in no way can or should we ever promise that can never happen. Clearly, it can (in our little school alone, 6 current students have lost a parent). Once children are aware it can happen, they are likely to become anxious and/or sad. Our job then, as caregivers, is to acknowledge their emotions, remind them that we love them, that we would, in any circumstance, do anything in our power to keep them safe, and … move on. Then repeat that cycle whenever necessary.
What we should NOT do is ignore the children's worries, conceal our own sadness, or dramatize. The best recourse is to be matter-of-fact about their emotions and ours, naming the emotions, explaining why they arise, talking about mourning, all the while remaining mindful of the child's maturity and attention span. Volunteering more information than the child is ready to absorb tends to be counterproductive. Giving the child opportunities to ask questions or make comments, listening and responding to those is optimum.
We have some resources on grief in the elementary school library under "Life Issues / emotions" (orange label with half green dot). Another good resource is Peter Levine and Maggie Kline's book on "Trauma-Proofing your Kids: A Parents' Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience."