How to Help Children Cope with Their Emotions
in the Aftermath of Violence
at the Boston Marathon
Includes Free Classroom Posters
Free Workshop Slots
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In This Issue:
Our thoughts go out to all of you in the Boston region as well as those of your affected by the tragedy at the marathon yesterday.
When it comes to violence, it's been another rough week for the U.S. It's the third major episode of extreme violence in 5 months. It's also the third major episode of violence that I have a personal connection to. The Boston Marathon bombing occurred yesterday, and the Newtown CT and Oregon mall shootings happened last December.
This is Ruth Herman Wells writing this issue. I grew up in Massachusetts, about half way between Boston and Newtown. I live 30 minutes from the site of the Oregon mall shooting.
All these connections make the recent outbreaks of large scale violence seem close and personal. Some of your students may have similar connections and similar reactions.
Unlike adults, many of your students lack sophisticated coping mechanisms to manage the fear and anxiety that big incidents of violence can generate. This issue of the blog is going to offer some fresh ideas on what you should do– and not do– to help. The accepted standard methods have changed, and are changing as we speak, so this could be an important update for you to read.
This issue will also direct you to follow-up resources that can guide you to help your children and youth who may be struggling with yet another frightening event of extreme violence. As someone who often ends up helping schools cope in the aftermath of tragedy, I am passing on some of the hard-won wisdom I have gathered in the years since 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and most recently, Sandy Hook.
Children in the Aftermath of Violence:
What to Do, What Not to Do
Many Common Methods Now Counter-Indicated
Many neurobiologists say that they have learned more about how the brain works in the past 5 years than in all the years preceding. That is a lot of progress. The new research strongly suggests that you can help or hurt children after a violent incident far more than was previously believed.
The go-to plan in the past has been to encourage talking, writing, drawing and reflection on the traumatic event by affected children and teens.
While obviously some discussion and acknowledgement is inevitable and necessary, in the past mental health clinicians often encouraged children to focus on the event beyond the minimum necessary.
New research now offers the concern that too much of a focus sears new painful paths into the brain. The updated goal: Strike the balance between acknowledgement and refocusing.
What does it mean to help children refocus? Limit the exposure of children and teens to the details of the tragedy especially television or video coverage. Channel their emotions into things that help them cope. Some specific use-today strategies are shown below. These intervention methods were all created or inspired by special ed teacher Chris Wells.
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Soothe the Brain
Just as exposure to vivid depictions of the violence can cause the brain to develop new problematic paths, the reverse is also true: You can help the brain develop new paths that help children cope.
The late children's TV host Mr. Rogers is reported to have said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” That type of approach is perfect for today when we are less than 24 hours beyond the Boston bombing.
Distract the Brain
When you drive by a big car accident, you know you shouldn't look, but a lot of us do it anyway. Some of us then regret viewing something so upsetting. When there has been a terrible act of violence, like yesterday's Boston Marathon bombing, many of us are tempted to look. For children who lack the relatively sophisticated coping mechanisms of mature adults, it's very important not to stop and look.
It is really important to distract children from perseverating on what happened. For children who won't let go, you can certainly choose to find things that have some type of connection to tragedy but that aren't likely to deepen pain or anxiety. The classic intervention to use: Have students help those victimized in the attack by taking up a collection, for example.
This is the perfect time for exposing children to how others have triumphed over violence or adversity. You can use stories of marathon survivors, or it's fine to choose stories with no connection. These strategies help create strong, positive paths in the brain that can be of benefit for a lifetime, according to leading brain researchers like Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Rick Hanson.
We created Poster #289 (shown above) to help children who become fearful to the point that they want to withdraw from normal activities. The poster says "Don't let others stop you from being who you are because of who they are."
You can download a free printable version of Poster #289 here.
Older children can discuss the saying on the poster. Methods like this help children cope without going deeper into the type of exposure that can sear fear into young brains.
Another activity: Provide your students with a background similar to that shown on Poster #289. You can download this printable poster free, then have students use computers or paper for this activity. Ask your students to write a saying or poem, or create a picture to inspire or help others to cope in the aftermath of tragedy. They can also use this background to make cards or signs that can be sent to Boston hospitals to encourage victims, or to thank doctors, police, EMTs and firefighters.
Teach students that when runners fall down, they get right back up and keep going. Have your youngsters discuss how they can put on their running shoes, lace them up and keep going.
More Resources on
Helping Children in the Aftermath of Violence
Sadly, I have had a lot of opportunity to write down what I've learned about helping children and teens cope with terrorism, natural disasters and violence so I do have more articles for you to expand your skills.
Repeat incidents of extreme violence do take a toll on all of us, including your children and teens. If you think you see a cumulative effect, you are probably right. Unsettled times often worsen unsettled minds. That will be especially true in New England, where two horrific incidents have occurred in a short time frame. Find the additional guides here: