Yesterday the Fairfield community experienced a traumatic event. Thankfully no one was physically hurt and all members of the Fairfield Public School community returned home safely. Even though no physical injuries were reported, this life threatening experience can trigger a traumatic reaction. Over the next few days you may notice your child exhibit an increase of anxiety, irritability, or difficulty sleeping. The reason for such a reaction is due to "fight-flight-or-freeze" response triggered by your amygdala. This primitive part of your brain alerts you to potential dangers in your environment. The "fight-flight-or-freeze" response allows you to protect yourself in the face of danger or provide you with the energy to flee from situation. For some the threat to one's personal safety is so overwhelming that he or she "freezes" in the face of a life threatening event and is unable to react. This reaction can be found in isolated incidents, which evoke a sense of fear to one's life and personal safety. I refer to this reaction as "discrete trauma."
A discrete trauma can be a natural disaster or single incident that threatens one’s life or personal safety. In the coming days you may notice your child displaying an increase in anxiety, irritability, or difficulty sleeping. This may be attributed to the fact that your child's physiology is returning to a "normal" state of functioning. However, for some people it may be more difficult to return to a normal or "everyday" state of living. This is caused by an inability to shift ones focus from the day “event.”
Even if you were not directly connected to the schools or live in the Fairfield community you may notice these changes in your child. This is what is referred to as “vicarious trauma” and can affect you and your child similarly to those directly affected. You may experience a sense of fear or worry that your child’s school could have been targeted. Your child may be feeling the same way and it is important talk about these feelings.
As Parents What Can You Do To Support Your Child In The Next Few Days?
Be Attuned Your Child's Behavior - Perhaps your child is unusually quite, anxious, irritable, or unable to sleep. These behaviors, following a discrete trauma, may be indicative of your child experiencing difficulty processing the day’s events. One might spend time together, go for a walk or have a family dinner. Often times these small displays of togetherness go further than any big display of affection.
Be Attuned To Your Behavior – You are not immune to traumatic events. Although adults are supposed to be capable of “controlling” their emotions you were not prepared for yesterday’s events. That is why you hear so many parents say, “I never thought it would happen here” in response to the school threats. You may experience an increase in anxiety or wish to avoid attending large gatherings in the days that follow. Take note of how your interactions with others may be impacted by Friday’s events.
Talk About Your Personal Experience – Perhaps you have experienced a similar event. Sometimes children do not have the ability to identify the relationship between a physiological response and an emotion response. By talking about a personal experience, without graphic detail, you can normalize your child's reaction as well as showing them you have had a similar experience and survived. Its important to note that you should avoid statements such as "I understand how you feel" as many children feel you, as an adult, could never understand how they feel.
Encourage Your Child To Talk - Many times children and adults do not talk about traumatic experiences because we feel the other person may be equally overwhelmed with emotion. When encouraging your child to talk about their experience try open-ended questions such "Tell me about...." or "Tell me how did you feel when...". If your child does not want to talk do not push them. The dialogue should be a natural process in which your child feels comfortable discussing the day’s events. Remember this is a time for your child to express him or her self. Avoid overly expressing how worried you were about their safety. This may cause your child to feel like you, as the parent, cannot provide them with the security necessary to express themselves. Remember many people do not talk about trauma because they do not want to emotionally overwhelm the other person.
When Does My Child's Behavior Warrant Professional Help?
Early intervention is typically the best way of assisting your child when a discrete trauma has occurred. Over the next few days and the coming weeks it is important that you are attuned to your child's behavior. If you notice some of the following it may be necessary to seek professional psychotherapy help.
If you notice that your child's anxiety, irritability, or quietness, is not subsiding or if he or she is having trouble processing the events on Friday.
If your child is having difficulty sleeping due to anxiety or nightmares about the events on Friday.
If your child has trouble returning to school because he or she is afraid something else may happen.