Most of us have been deeply affected and disturbed by events of December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut. Sadly, we’ve been through this too many times before, in recent history. Far too many times. However, this particular disaster has multiple dimensions of horror to it. When I read the news, I was unable to work for several hours, and the distraction I felt for the rest of the day has continued today. One well-known child psychologist I know simply abandoned his work and went home to his family. I have years of training, experience, and thought invested in my twin careers as cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist, all of which induce me to see this event as profoundly complex, and well beyond the grasp of any easy explanation. For that, I will wait.
My first thought is for those who will most identify with the victims* – children who did not die on that day but who heard the news. We are social animals, and that means we care about our children. We must, for they are us, and they are our future. It is in our genes and therefore in our hearts to have concern for their welfare; it cannot be otherwise. A partial solution for my own distress has been for me to write the following. (Please note that “children” here means anyone below the age of 18. However, adults are perfectly capable of becoming functional children in time of crisis, and will also respond to much that is helpful to actual children.)
Adults must care for children because they cannot do the job themselves. “Caring for” them simply means helping them grow up to be adults, so that the cycle of nurturing can be repeated. As caretakers, our first job is to protect children from anything they cannot handle: threats to their physical or emotional health certainly are legitimately our primary concern. Such protection is certainly not all that they need from us. It’s just the first thing. Our attempts to protect them will surely fail, multiple times, as they grow up. When that happens, we must stay on the job, as it were.
So, what can we do, when all of us are impacted by incomprehensible disaster and tragedy?
First, we take a little time to compose and calm ourselves
We do this because those who seek to assist others need to be sure they are not part of the problem.
It’s often helpful to distinguish a crisis - which requires immediate action – from a problem. With the latter we have time to work things through, and stay with the problem until we arrive at a conclusion we can live with. In the overwhelming majority of situations, a child who has been witness to the incomprehensible will be mostly fearful, and that’s usually a problem, not a crisis. With problems we have the luxury of going forward slowly and deliberately. Taking a little time to compose ourselves before turning to children will help us help them better.
Second, focus on the child
Take time to do what adults can do uniquely well for children: be receptive, interested, accepting, and calm. This leaves the conversational space open for the child to occupy, which is what they need. We don’t need to talk TO them so much as talk WITH them – and most of all to listen while they talk to us.
We may surely be having problems coping with what’s happened. These problems are best taken up with other adults. Children don’t need our problems, cannot make use of them, and may become overwhelmed by them. But, do realize that most children become fairly perceptive, at an early age, of the feelings of adults upon whom they depend, so they likely do know that we’re upset. The problem is just that what we show them of our distress needs to help them, not add to their own distress. With older children, showing some of your distress, overtly and in moderation, is usually appropriate and even helpful. It’s realistic, and it’s useful for them to see that it’s alright to have feelings and to share them. They also need a good example of how to do this without making a problem for others.
The younger the child the more they must be the focus. Our concern needs to be for them, as they actually are, not as we might imagine them to be. Don’t make a problem larger than it is. We do well to let the child show us what their problem (if any) is, rather than to make suppositions about it. The question we need to answer is: Are they in trouble, and if so what kind of trouble?
Most of the time, physical threat is not the issue – although fear of such threat well may be. If it is, what needs to be done will be fairly obvious to us: block the threat, in reality and in the child’s mind. What’s left after that is, in order of priority, emotional threat, then conceptual threat.
Emotional threat simply has to do with feelings the child has but cannot handle. People of all ages have feelings in reaction to what they are seeing, in reality or in their mind. Encourage the child to tell their story and their feelings will usually show well enough. We can then visibly recognize them, without amplifying them, and show the child that we can handle their having them. We thus become a container for what may be difficult for them to manage, alone. This simple act is often the most useful thing we can do.
Conceptual threat has to do with the child’s inability to make sufficient sense of what has happened. But how can we help them when we cannot make sense of something ourselves? The first key is to remember that the child’s viewpoint is not ours – they are not adult. Their ability to “understand”, on the best of days, is limited. We can work to help them construct a story about what happened that they can be reasonably comfortable with. It needs to be their story, however, and told on their terms and in their language. They construct it, and we can help them get it right. That doesn’t mean “accurate” so much as “acceptable” to them, emotionally.
The second key is to remember what their concerns actually are. Doing this well requires adequate insight into a child’s developmental status, of course, but in general, all children need to know that we are watching them, concerned about their welfare, and that this won’t cease. Demonstrating this is more important than saying it. We are their buffer against chaos, and they need to see and feel this. More concretely, when we help them construct an age-appropriate story about what happened, we can see that it ends with the statement that we adults are working to set things right, and will continue to work to protect them from harm as much as we can. How you say this to a four year old will differ greatly from how you say it to a sixteen year old, but the core message is the same.
Finally, work to restore a sense of normalcy
Children are concrete thinkers. A child’s world is small, and it is appropriate and manageable for them to be focused on immediate things. So, see that those things are in order for them. Daily life needs to be predictable and familiar, for the most part. When it’s not, it needs to be interesting and challenging without being overwhelming. Therefore, restore daily routines they know and like. Keep from them unwanted and unneeded exposure to aspects of the disaster which can too easily continue to intrude and disturb. It’s far more useful to emphasize, when the child has questions about this, that disasters are rare, and that adults actively watch for them, to keep kids safe as much as possible.
The most crucial part of that effort is you, as their caretaker. Keep yourself functioning and they will follow after you. Do what you usually do, every day. Convey to them that life does go on, even if it’s in a new place, or with new people, and they will see that they are a part of this, and return to their task of growing up. When that is achieved, we have done our best.
And stay with it. Things take time. Children will continue to think about and react to what has happened, and talk about it with other children. Continue to pay attention to what’s going on with them and their world, as is customary for you to do. Stay on the job, and they will move on through the challenge and thrive as well as possible, all things considered. We all want that, and we can all work to achieve it.
“victims” – We must acknowledge that the children are not the only living victims of this. Their families certainly come next in our concerns, and the first- responders who had to confront the awful aftermath of this disaster. Finally, let us acknowledge the family and relatives of the shooter, for they also are innocent and will be affected for the rest of their lives by all this. All need to know that we are thinking of them, and would offer willing offer them help were it possible for us to do so.