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How has the Sandy Hook Shooting Impacted your Child- Recognizing Trauma

December 20, 2012

There are a lot of great articles floating around the internet on how to talk to your kids about the Sandy Hook school shooting, but my favorite is:

I also really appreciate this article for adults, encourage us to feel before acting.

A week later, most of us have navigated through the initial question of “How do I talk to my kids about this?” This horrific mass murder that happened in what we perceive to be one of the safest places on earth- an elementary school in a quiet, cozy town. We’ve answered our kid’s questions about why this happened and if their school is safe. Some of us even have kids whose school is addressing this, either verbally or with drills. So what now? How do we know if our kids are bouncing back or if they need some extra help and support to process through this event? Children can experience symptoms of trauma simply from hearing about an event or watching the news on television. They may experience symptoms of trauma because they overheard some classmates talking about the shooting or because your child’s school had a “lock-down” drill. Children may experience symptoms of trauma because adults in their life had a very big reaction to the event. Expressing grief, sadness, and anger will not typically traumatize a child, but when adults experience and express their own overwhelming feelings that result in big displays of emotion, this can be very frightening and confusing to a young child and leave them feeling unsafe.

What should I look for in my child? How do I know if he is experiencing some symptoms of trauma?

Play– For young children, trauma symptoms may be expressed in your child’s play. You may notice obvious themes (in this example, through playing school, violence at schools, feeling scared or helpless at school). It is common for kids to work through their fears and feelings in their play. You want to pay close attention to the play and you should see the play progress and eventually resolve. If your child’s play seems frantic, driven, and does not reach a resolution or appear to bring your child any relief, then your child likely needs some help moving through that traumatic play.

Sleeping and Eating– Dramatic changes in your child’s sleeping and eating patterns may suggest lingering traumatic effects.

Emotions– Bigger than usual emotional responses, like becoming angry or scared very quickly, having longer and more intense temper tantrums, or becoming more oppositional or agitated.

Changes in personality– Your previously outgoing child may become shy and withdrawn. Your easy going child may become cranky and difficult to please.

Somatic complaints– Your child may have an increase in tummy aches or headaches. Trauma can cause digestive problems that result in constipation or diarrhea.

ADHD symptoms– Often times children who experienced trauma are misdiagnosed with ADHD. They are very active, appear to have excess body energy, and have difficulty concentrating.

Excessive talking– Children talk ‘a mile a minute’ and may ask was seems like a million nonsense questions that they already know the answer to.

Checking out– You may notice your child staring off into space or having a blank look in her eyes.

Regressing– Children experiencing the impact of trauma may turn to behaviors they left behind in their toddler-years. Thumb sucking, bedwetting, or baby-talk.

Nightmares

Becoming preoccupied or obsessed– Wanting to learn about guns and read about guns; wanting to learn everything he can about the school shooting, researching safety protocols in schools, constantly talking about the event.

Magical thinking– This is developmentally appropriate for school age children and may be expressed by your child thinking a certain thing “caused” the event or was an “omen.” It’s important to correct these ‘mixed up thoughts.’

School symptoms– Difficulty concentrating, harder time finishing a task, being off task, excess energy and moving around the classroom, difficulty feeling ‘settled.’

Exaggerated startle reflex– A cupboard closing or a toilet flushing may cause your child to startle.

Fatigue, daydreaming, and isolation– This may be the result of your child shutting down and “checking out,” symptoms therapists may refer to as “mild dissociation.” These children may cut themselves off from peers, preferring to be alone. If your child has suddenly shown an increase in activities that keep them shut off from life (for example, reading books or playing video games) she may be showing symptoms of mild dissociation.

A few thoughts on teenagers: Teens may demonstrate traumatic stress in any of the above ways, but they also may have more ‘classic’ symptoms of PTSD, including flashbacks, avoiding thoughts or experiences associated with the incident, and finding ways to numb their feelings. This may look like drugs, alcohol, sex, cutting, or other risky behaviors. Teens may become irritable and depressed. You may see a decline in their grades and an increase in behavior such as being oppositional, disrespectful, or skipping school.

Children can experience the trauma of this tragedy even thousands of miles away, particularly due to media coverage. Some of the symptoms above may be demonstrated by your child and this isn’t necessarily a reason to call a therapist. However, if the symptoms linger, persist, and interfere with your child’s regular life, it may be time to look for some help from a therapist who has worked with children impacted by trauma.

~


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling.

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