Dr. Roxanne Daleo Offers Tips for Managing Stress and Grief in Children After the Sandy Hook Elementary Tragedy

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Managing stress and grief as a result of crisis, such as the one at the Sandy Hook Elementary School is a challenge, even for the most experienced, trained professionals. Here are some suggestions on how to begin and what you can do if your child has been affected and is asking questions.

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“Like sailing through warm seas, you easily find your balance with the calm and then again amidst the storm. No matter the weather, you know how to find your center – your peace.” Dr. Roxie

Managing stress and grief as a result of crisis, such as the one at the Sandy Hook Elementary School is a challenge, even for the most experienced, trained professionals. Here are some suggestions on how to begin and what parents can do if their child has been effected and is asking questions.

Under normal circumstances, talking to children about death can be a heart-opening experience for both of you; rather than something to avoid. Everyday parents have an opportunity to bring theirchild’s attention to the cycles of life all around us. From the tiniest insect, to a plant, or a fish; everything has a life cycle. Some are very short cycles; other creatures like birds are longer. Animals and humans, usually even longer. Everything is born, lives and then dies.

The natural world is a place to start to develop your child’s understanding of death in the context of life cycles. (See the book LifeTimes: The beautiful way to explain death to children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen, Bantam Books, 1983.) to help yourself begin the conversation with your child in a calm and centered way.

Under unusual or tragic circumstances, parents have to go deeper to meet their child’s needs and their own. And to be able to answer their questions, correct misconceptions, ease worries and fears.

When a child’s life cycle is cut short, parents look beyond the physical, to the spiritual, to their faith, to whatever is believed sacred and Divine for ways to explain the inexplicable. What happens after a child dies is a matter of your faith and a parent's belief system.

For those parents who are confronted with their own uncertainties, referring to world cultures may provide a way to come to grips with their own fears; learning from others what they do may provide comforting answers for parents and children. In many places, death is an integral part of life. Grandparents live in the same house and even die at home surrounded by loved ones where family members can mourn together and support one another. Infants and babies sometimes die and although it is out of order of nature, there is ritual to honor the little life in it’s entirety. Grief is the opportunity to come together in praise of the individual who died.

Things For You To Consider

When upset feelings happen, many parents are more likely to not want to talk about them. But pushing feelings away is not the best for children. Even if they don’t say anything, children are observant and they will “feel” a parent's feelings, “read” facial expressions and body language.

In short, by not fully expressing feelings, parents teach children to not express themselves in healthy ways. This can cause more worry for children rather than protecting them from hurt and emotional pain.

Be Mindful of the Child's Age See Guidelines for Children’s Conception of Death Age and Stage of Understanding:

STAGE 1: Preschool to 5 years old
                 Death is not permanent and non-reversible; children understand death as separation; more like a different kind of life. (ex. “How will she get around in heaven without her wheelchair?”)

STAGE 2: Ages 5 - 9 years old
                 Death is understood as permanent; it’s inevitability has not been realized.
Children can “elude death by escaping the clutches of death” (“I can run and hide so he won’t get me!”).
Children may think of death as a movie or story character, such as a Halloween ghost, skeleton, grim reaper or shadow. In the case of a real dangerous person, such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School (ex. “Will another bad guy come after me?”)

STAGE 3: Ages 9-10 years old
Death is final and inevitable. Youngsters may have a pre- occupation with the fear of bodily harm. Images of violence more prevalent and accessible from media and movies.

Be Mindful of the Level of Experience with Death.
If a child was directly involved with the Sandy Hook traumatic event, that experience is powerful, present, charged with emotions and pervades the parent's and child’s everyday life now.

Whereas, explaining a distant event from news reports is best done by answering only those questions children ask with empathy and caring and at their level of cognitive development. (Guidelines for Children’s Conception of Death- Age and Stage of Understanding go to: http://www.drroxannedaleo.com)

Be Short and Simple.
Answering questions with regard to the Sandy Hook tragedy can be well done briefly. Children want reassurance of their safety and security as well as their parents'.

Be Close.
Common reactions may include: separation anxiety, loss of appetite, fear of a repeat lethal threat, nightmares.
Don’t expect children to stray too far without a parent. Create outings together or stay home in a peaceful atmosphere, perhaps use the fireplace and make hot drinks for everyone. Sit together, welcome the quiet, just be with each other.

Be Heartful
When parents allow themselves to get in touch with their own uncomfortable feelings, without trying to ignoring them or keeping themselves hectic and anxious they better model how to mange difficult feelings by composing themselves after showing true feelings of grief. Parents can help themselves by openly calming themselves using soothing music, lighting a candle, making a cup of tea, slowing down and breathing deeply in front of their children. Being centered, parents can share more authentically and wisely.

Be Aware Children React to Death Differently Than Adults
Often children may not show sadness, but might act out, misbehave or have angry outbursts. There may be changes in the patterns of their eating and sleeping, or be afraid to go to sleep or wake with nightmares.

Be Peace
Use Guided Imagery Relaxation Techniques
Sit with your child in the late afternoon or just before going to sleep, Listen to a guided imagery recording; it’s a natural way to turn the volume down on the stress response and turn on the relaxation response. Children love to use their imagination, a skillful narration of specific healing images and soothing music can help your child’s brain replace fearful ideas with calming ones. The use of guided imagery recordings before your child goes to sleep is a highly effective way for your child to help himself calm and settle.

Be Creative
Create a tangible way to say “good-bye”
Place a flower on a memorial site; make a paper sailboat and send it off to sea, write a message in a bottle and bury it or throw it in the ocean; write a message place it in a balloon and sent it up to the sky.

Be Tender
Remember the loved one. List the qualities of the child or teacher who children lost. Scape booking the positive memories and photos is helpful. Evoking the tenderness of each other’s spirit can be a life restoring event. Grief is gratitude for life; it is our opportunity to honor the wholeness of the person’s life-regardless of the length.

For more information and age appropriate tips visit: http://www.drroxannedaleo.com

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Roxanne Daleo
MindWorks For Children
(617) 755-4490
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