Talking to Your Children about the Newtown Tragedy

Dr. Stephanie Marcy, (PHD Licensed Child Psychologist)

What are signs I should look for that indicate a problem or post traumatic stress in my child?
Behavioral regressions (playing in ways they've outgrown)
Clinginess, fear or separating from parents
Toilet accidents
Nightmares, withdrawal
Change in eating habits,
Continuing/obsessively talking about event
Reluctance towards activities once enjoyed
Decreased attention/concentration
Not wanting to go to school
Disruptive behavior

How do I help my child who has been traumatized by this incident?
It's important to pin point their fears. Ask about what is scaring them specifically (ie. unsafe classrooms, not having an escape plan). Avoid jumping the gun with a comment like "this bad man can't hurt you:" it can open a whole new can of worms and introduce new fears. Ask what their worst fear is and address that. (In general, avoid term: "Bad guys." Say instead-sometimes bad things happen in this world")

Reinforce the coping skills that your child may have used before in his life. "Remember that time you were scared? What did you do that time?" This will give kid a sense of some personal control. Parents should use familiar family routines as a means to comfort. Spend extra time at bedtime, maybe read another book. Engage in traditions that they're thankful for and make them feel loved and safe.

How do I send my kid off to school without total fear?
Combat your own sense of helplessness by being active.
Put the control back in your own hands by:
Organizing parent coffees/meetings
Organizing neighborhood community events
Start dialogue with school officials about the safety of students
Writing to your local representative about safety standards you want enacted
All of these things will help make you feel empowered because you're contributing to the solution.

How do we detect mental illness in our children early enough to prevent something like this from happening?
"Prodromal signs of psychosis" are often confused with universal adolescent depression. Parents must distinguish between common adolescent angst from early signs of mental illness. These signs include:

-Ritualistic behavior with increasing intensity
-Being developmentally behind in their age group.
-Retardation of social skills
-Problems identifying with peers
-Unusual fears or aversions

Parents cannot be ashamed of seeking psychological help for their children. We need to have a more open dialogue in this country so that mental illness in children is not anathema. It's rare for such problems to manifest themselves overnight. You can catch this stuff. Talking openly about this is better for our society and better for our families.

When you identify these red flags in your child's mental fitness, what should be done?
Give them their own psychotherapy and family psychotherapy with a psychiatrist or developmental pediatrician. Pair that with psychotropic medicine that will aid in reality distortion, paranoia and ritualistic behaviors. The child will have to deal with it their whole lives, but it's not necessarily disabling. It's quite treatable and as long as their treatment is being monitored by loved ones in their lives then they wont necessarily engage in criminal or violent behavior.

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