Adults have spent the last week helping children process the events of October 1st. As life slowly begins to return to what will be the new normal in Vegas, many are left wondering what conversations are left. How will we know if our kids are showing signs of trauma? As a mother, the wife of a first responder, and a counselor at Faith Lutheran, I have guided many discussions this week and understand the work that still lies before us as we all recover. Much of that work will continue with you.
Levels of Impact
After the Las Vegas shooting, as with any traumatic event, there will be different levels of impact. The first level involves those who were in attendance at the event, whether they were injured or unharmed, which also includes first responders. The next level involves those who were not directly in attendance but closely related to someone who was there. These second tier people may have lost a loved one or spent fearful hours trying to get in contact with them. The third level impact includes those who know or who are working with those within the first two levels. Teachers, counselors, and family friends tend to fall within this level. This tier will often hear stories of survival firsthand. The fourth level of impact is the general public, people who are not directly tied to the incident but still feel the trauma and pain of the traumatic event. This group may often find themselves overly submersed in the news or in social media and may unintentionally create trauma within themselves through over exposure. Typically the level of support and attention is greatest on the first level and wanes as it works outward. As we work with kids, we need to remember that everyone is entitled to feelings. Someone in the fourth level of impact has every right to be upset and unsettled and need to discuss it. Often there is a tremendous guilt felt by those in the outer levels, as they do not feel entitled to the same feelings as those in tier one.The actions of one man on October 1st impacted a nation. Everyone is entitled to feelings. Additionally, a large scale trauma like the Vegas shooter can awaken smaller traumas; issues of abuse or feelings of anxiety which were previously not interfering with day to day life.
Signs of PTSD in Children
Regardless of where a child falls within the levels of impact it is entirely possible that there may be trauma. The signs of trauma can vary from child to child. Warning signs may include:
- Changes in sleep or eating patterns
- Anxiety (a feeling younger children may describe as “jumpy” or “scared”)
- School avoidance/sudden absences/separation anxiety with caregivers
- New anxiety or fears (such as the darkness or loud noises)
- Lowered focus in school or a deterioration in academic performance
- Depression or apathy
- Avoidance of previously enjoyed activities or social events
- Somatization (new headaches or stomach aches, frequent trips to the nurse)
So how do we help our kids? First, it is absolutely appropriate for students to be in school with proper support. While it is tempting to keep kids out of school and remain in the safe bubble of home, delaying the return to school will only cause anxiety to worsen. A day spent in the school counselor’s office is more healing than a day spent alone in a bedroom. Alert your child’s school to any fears you may have. We also need to assure our kids that any fears they may have, even those that may seem irrational, are a part of the healing process. While there may be nothing to fear in the dark, a child should never be told that they should not be afraid. Rather, they should be assured of safety and also have the fear validated by letting them know it is common to be afraid following a traumatic event.
Adults may also need reminding that children are developmentally not able to process traumatic events on a large scale but will rather relate this event to how it most closely impacts them. A child who is upset that a sleepover was canceled due to the shooting is not being selfish or being a brat. Rather, they are trying to verbalize upset that the world as they know it has been disrupted. Understand that kids work off of immediate loss and be appropriately sensitive. Much of what kids verbalize will be unrelated to the actual event. Most students cannot articulate ideas such as a fear of being unsafe in public or the true evil of the Las Vegas shooter’s actions. Kids will instead talk about fears they are able to name. In much younger children, different behaviors will be seen. Kids may display a regression of social skills, more aggressive behaviors, or become more demanding of adult attention. Adults need to address behaviors and also remain sympathetic to feelings behind the behaviors.
Beyond the First Few Weeks
Be aware of the role that the news and social media are playing in your home. While it is tempting to closely follow this story, our kids deserve a break from it. Even the sound of gunfire on television can become embedded in a child’s mind. Do your best to become a no media home for a while.
Avoid telling your child how to feel or engaging in political rhetoric in front of them. Now is not the time for our children to learn of your feelings on gun control or be told that they should be able to move past something. Validate feelings and reassure a sense of safety and support.
Understand that some acting out is to be expected. Sudden bursts of anger or tears should be allowed and the child should have a safe space to work through them. Work with children to help them understand that while it is ok to be angry, anger should be expressed in a way that does not push other people away.
If a child is withdrawing from previously enjoyed activities, allow them the opportunity to explain. For example, “If you no longer enjoy swimming, what is it you are doing that you enjoy?” It may be possible that your child’s interests and perspectives will change in the months following the shooting and that is ok. Be on the lookout for children who are unable to name new activities or who are engaging in unhealthy ones.Romans 5:20b, "But where sin increased, grace increased all the more."
October 1st was horrible, however, so many stories of hope and healing have been told. Help your child to see the good in the world, even in dark times. At Faith Lutheran, we know that God is sovereign and that we are to be strong and courageous in Him who gives us strength. We pray that our children are able to remain steadfast in the knowledge that they are safe and loved as they work through this incident.