How our children will recover
December 17th, 2012
12:26 PM ET

How our children will recover

Editor's Note: Frank Ochberg is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Michigan State University and former Associate Director of the National Institute of Mental Health. The views expressed are his own.

By Frank Ochberg, Special to CNN

I write this on a sad Sunday, December 16, 2012. The nation is in mourning for little children, six and seven years old, killed by a young man for senseless reasons. Because I helped other communities recover from similar tragedies, I have been a “media source,” speaking to reporters, and through them, to anxious parents and frustrated citizens in America, Canada, Britain and South America. The questions are sober and sensible. “How do children who saw this happen ever recover?” “What should parents do if their children see images on television and get frightened?” “Why does America tolerate such easy access to lethal weapons?” I do my best to answer.

Children, for the most part, are resilient. First graders don’t fully understand the meaning of death. But the classmates in Connecticut who lost their friends and whose teachers will never be the same will learn, sooner or later, that they survived when others did not. They may or may not develop post traumatic stress disorder, the invisible injury we associate with combat veterans and rape survivors. They may or may not feel “survivor guilt,” a pattern of remorse and responsibility that haunts many who live through a catastrophe when others perish. Children who are emotionally traumatized by direct exposure to scenes of horror may regress. This means they act and feel as though they were a year or two younger. A child who was toilet trained may wet the bed. The ability to speak clearly or to play confidently with others may be impaired. These are usually temporary setbacks. I’ll predict that most of the children in Newtown will feel the love of family and community members, and will be reassured of their security and their place among caring, competent adults. Those who seem troubled a month or more after the shooting will benefit from interactions with a trained therapist.

Child therapists know how to engage young children in play-therapy, and how to use coloring books and a sand-box to elicit feelings and fantasies. Through play at the child’s level, fears are worked through and confusion is clarified. Often, kids blame themselves for the anger or depression they see in their parents. Professional child workers face this challenge effectively whether the cause of emotional difficulty is a traumatic event or an illness or a troubled family with marital discord.

In some cases, a professional child care worker may concentrate on intervention with a parent, helping an anxious mother learn how to be assertive and effective - or how to help an angry father control his temper and create a safe environment for a vulnerable son or daughter.

More from CNN: Obama says these tragedies must end

The most important medicine for the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School is the love that they receive from their families. And, in general, from the messages we have received from the media, the prognosis in this regard is excellent.

What about children across America and in other countries who are learning about murder in supposedly safe school?

My grandson, age six, learned of the shooting and developed a super hero fantasy that he could rescue any classmate and conquer any villain. But when his four-year-old sister saw their dad in tears, she cried, too. Children surprise us with their range of reactions, but most are exquisitely sensitive to the feelings of their parents. And parents cannot fully shield their emotions from their family members. So why not cry? It is OK for your children to see you in tears. But reassure them at the same time: “I’m sad because something sad happened today, not here, but far away. You didn’t make me sad. I love you.”

My daughter, whose children are 9 and 7, asked her older boy if he wanted to hear about a sad thing that happened to children far away. He said he didn’t. I thought she was wise to ask. But when a child does want to know, or learns from other children and asks Mom or Dad to explain things, it makes sense to respond with age-appropriate detail. If your six year-old wants to know if children in Connecticut were in pain, you can say, “Not for long.” We do know that much from authorities on the scene.

More from CNN: 'Taken far too soon'

If your children want to know about the brave adults in the school who saved many children’s lives, you can, truthfully, talk about the way teachers helped children hide and then guided them to safety. Turning the narrative toward escape from danger is consistent with fairy tales and adventure stories that young people have already encountered, and that are part of normal child development in every culture.

You certainly can protect your young child from an overdose of trauma imagery. The media is not at fault for saturating the air-waves with explicit information from a terrible tragedy. We do have a need to know details, as details emerge from a critical incident that affects a sacred place – the school where our children and grandchildren spend five days a week. But when we have digested enough detail, it is up to us, the members of the audience, to limit our exposure. The cumulative effect of televised violence, trauma and grief can be debilitating. It takes less of a dose to upset a child.

Kindergarten and first-grade teachers may be nervous, returning to class this week. They are not trained therapists, and they may not know what to expect or how to respond to a six year-old who has a vague idea - or an informed idea - of what occurred in Connecticut. Since children are comforted by continuity and routine, it would be sensible to stick to the lesson plan. Don’t raise issues that the children themselves are not raising. There may be a temptation to send messages of support from one elementary school to another, but this could turn your classroom into a grief support session. That is not a comfortable role for a teacher or a very young student.

Most schools have well-established programs for individual students of any age who become distraught during school hours. These should suffice whether a youngster has a problem related to TV coverage of tragedy in Connecticut or a personal issue having nothing to do with that school shooting.

There are people who identify closely with victims of violent events. The terms vicarious traumatization and compassion fatigue refer to conditions affecting people who develop symptoms that may resemble PTSD because they absorbed the trauma of others.

Whether you are a parent, a teacher or a news consumer who cares deeply for those directly impacted by the Newtown elementary school disaster, your grief is normal. But if images persist and you become numb and anxious you may need some assistance. The website that I know best is http://www.giftfromwithin.org and it is full of useful information for those who face the lingering effects of traumatic stress, including vicarious victimization and compassion fatigue.

And what about the American gun law dilemma?

Many of us are not only experiencing grief, but are frustrated to the point of anger. I am deeply troubled by our collective inability to address an outrageous American fact. We have more civilian death from guns than any other advanced nation on the face of this planet. We expect to have mass shootings at schools and malls and places of business. “Going postal” is an American phrase.

Every foreign reporter who interviewed me this week asked about this phenomenon. They do not understand why we tolerate such a hazard to our collective health. And this does make me angry.

My anger is not directed at the NRA or the 2nd Amendment or anyone who supports our right to bear arms. My frustration comes from our national refusal to consider rational ways to reduce gun deaths. We are polarized and we are paralyzed. The search for remedy has been politicized. Our elected leaders have chosen to ignore this issue.

Let’s concentrate on school shootings, not on all the other forms of gun death. These are almost always due to young men who have access to arsenals of weapons. Often, the shooter is mentally disturbed. Frequently, the disturbance has been noticed. In the case of the Virginia Tech killer, Mr. Cho, his illness led to an out-patient civil commitment. That means that both medical and judicial authorities were “on the case.” And still, he managed to find sufficient fire power to kill 32 people on campus.

I did suggest an approach in a previous CNN essay here.

Can the members of the National Rifle Association, good people who believe in America, address this issue? Can the urban and rural political leaders, compassionate elected officials, come to the table together? Can we stop insulting one another because we have different legacies of gun ownership and address gun safety?

We can and must find ways to keep lethal weapons out of the hands of individuals who are dangerous to themselves and others. This will involve legislation to assure responsibility. It need not threaten the policy positions of the major political parties.

We are on a fiscal cliff and that demands attention. But we are on a moral cliff that imperils American children.

This will happen again. All of us will benefit when America’s gun safety agenda is advanced, now, not “down the road.”

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Topics: United States

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. matslats

    What drugs was he on?
    Why is noone asking questions about big Pharma

    December 17, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  2. JAL

    Worldly Logic has no comfortable place anywhere near this hienus event. Just pray for these families and support them in every way possible, Obama should put these families at the top of his list for aid for years to come.

    December 17, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  3. Just Think

    The ACLU made us take GOD out of our schools and discipline out of the schools and homes.
    WHAT DO YOU EXPECT?

    December 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
    • Hahahahahahaah

      What kinds of guns does GOD own? Hahahahahahahah

      December 17, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
    • alumette

      God is NOT responsible for our problems but WE are. Poor parenting....children out of control with the wrong stimuli....We live in a society of aggression, violence and lack of guidance. Kids are lost as their negative behavior tells us : they need help but parents are not there to satisfy that need. Very sad indeed.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Reply
  4. www.twitter.com/hlmelsaid

    More hard guns certificate.

    December 17, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  5. alumette

    If I had not been vigilant and expected an angry teen to skate right in my path, I would have hit him. I stopped and waited for him to get to the other side of the street. As I looked at him, I felt a level of anger way above an average kid. What is going on with the teens ? why are some of them so angry with death wishes ? self destruction is very close to destroying others . What is our society doing to address this issue ?

    December 17, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  6. deniz boro

    PTSD was one of the factors that led to my 260 seanses of therapy with Prof Mine Özmen (a leading Lady educated in both Turkey and USA) It can not realy be cured. And people suffering from it are phrone to depression thereafter. Most often because of trivial reminders of the factor that caused the trauma. The only thing that the best terapist can teach you is how to deal with it. The best remedy is actualy not to give a cause for it. PTSD is a relatively new field of research cause nobody actualy cared about what a gun-shooting can do to the souls of anybody on either side of the gun.
    I guess the understanding and acceptance of the insidance by both the sufferer and his/her surroundings is a step. I actually chose to ignore and forget the whole years around it. I cannot remember most of my childhood. Help, love, understanding and acceptance may cure the scar. But realy, cure of TRAUMA is an area of MEDICINE which is generally ignored. Because the cure can be various, take a long time, is costy and will not YET give out a 100% cure.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  7. deniz boro

    By the way my PTSD was caused by by sister's committing a suicide when I was 18 years old. The diagnosis took almost 5 years and the cure only 5 or 6 months. With a therapy on death and departing.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  8. deniz boro

    Oh Yes... Another lesson I learned from my therapist was how to express my anger in a constructive way, without harming myself or others.... "Many of us are not only experiencing grief, but are frustrated to the point of anger. " People should not be afraid of feeling and expressing themselves in words. But by using "I feel...." rather than " You did..." we may be sharing the grief rather than taking it out on a scapegoat.
    I believe a general information on anxiety-frustration-anger control can be very productive on all USA sufferers at the current time.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  9. deniz boro

    I love the news on SERVICE DOGS. Sometimes where human mind reach the limit of comprehantion, basic animal instincts of UNCONDITIONAL love is what is needed. We, humans can not realy do this, thanks to our rational mind. But maybe we may seek help from our four legged friends.

    December 17, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Reply
  10. Sally

    Probably the children should be told that running around with a gun, isn't something that should be romantized so much! Probably the children should be told that a rosy fairy-tale world isn't reality. Probably the children should be told that people are not perfect, parents neither and sometimes terrible things happen and that it takes time to understand the deeper meaning of it. Probably the children should be told that Adam Lanza was a child like them once and that he probably had wishes and dreams and that something terrible inside him has happened, so that the plan to kill a kid for every year (he was twenty) and his mother first, was his disastrous message to the world.

    December 18, 2012 at 2:17 am | Reply
    • deniz boro

      Maybe people sould get REAL about life, their families and te society they live in. And forget about all the fairy tales of both Andersen and Billy the Kid.

      December 24, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  11. j. von hettlingen

    Are members and supporters of the NRA as cold as the metal of their guns and rifles? The shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School will not be the last one.

    December 18, 2012 at 8:39 am | Reply

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