How to Help Children and Teens Cope with the Violence and Tragedy of the CT Massacre

 

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SPECIAL ISSUE:

How to Help Children and Teens
Cope with the Violence and Tragedy
of the CT Massacre

 

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Youth Change Workshops is based outside Portland, Oregon, 30 miles from the Tuesday, December 11 mall shooting. I am Ruth Herman Wells, Director of Youth Change. I grew up just 75 minutes away from Friday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT. Even though I have devoted my life to helping schools and teachers work with students who struggle with problems like coping with trauma and tragedy, like you, I was knocked to the ground by the two horrific shooting massacres. Because I had ties to both shooting sites, the horror seemed very personal and close to home. Many of you may have had a similar reaction.

After 911 and Katrina, I was asked to help many schools and teaching staffs to learn how to best recover from the traumatic events in those regions. Since that time, research into the brain has really advanced, and mental health counselors now have a bit better understanding of what to do– and not do– to help children cope with and rebound from extreme tragedy like last week's deadly violence. Those new insights are incorporated into the guide below.

The guide is intended for use by teachers, counselors, and other adults who may be struggling to understand what to do in the aftermath of the horror at Sandy Hook. This guide covers K-12 students, and both students with pre-existing challenges, and those without. The guide is intended for use with students who were in proximity to the tragedies, as well as those who were not in proximity, but still deeply affected.

Youth Change Workshops exists for one purpose: To help educators, mental health professionals, and other youth professionals to help troubled youth. In addition to the help offered in this how-to guide, Youth Change is available to assist you further (without charge). You can reply to this email, call us at 503.982.4220, reach us via our Contact page, or click on the Live Expert Help icon that is at the bottom right corner of every page on our website, http://www.youthchg.com. This guide is no substitute for consulting a local mental health professional, which you are legally bound to do if you suspect a child may be at risk of serious harm or self-harm.

 

A Dozen New Guidelines:

How to Help Children and Teens
Cope with Extreme Violence and Tragedy

1. Don't Board the Upsetting Thought Train

For children who are having trouble managing their thoughts following the week of violence: Have the child look at the upsetting thought and figure out "if that thought was a train, where would it take me?" If the answer is that the child would end up upset, suggest the child not board that train. Teach children they are not their thoughts; they have the power to control what they are thinking. Recent research by psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel and others suggests we have more ability to manage our upsetting thoughts than previously believed.

2. Who is in Charge of the Thought Train?

Children tend to say "I had this upsetting thought…" New research by Dr. Siegel indicates that it is critical to teach children that they aren't their thoughts, that they have a choice about whether to pursue thoughts that upset them. So, teach children and teens to say instead: "My mind offered me this thought…" That distinction reinforces the idea to students that they are not their thoughts. That distinction also helps them remember that they can be the boss/engineer of their "thought train," not a helpless victim of it. Since the hallmark of depression is powerlessness, this strategy is fantastic for use with depressed students.

3. There is No "Right Way" to React to a Horrible Wrong

A Holocaust survivor wrote that "an abnormal reaction to abnormal circumstances is normal." That means there is no "right way" for children and teens to endure. Watch instead for the severity of the reaction, the denial or avoidance. A "different" reaction doesn't necessarily equate with worse, but if the response appears to be extremely problematic– immediately or long term– that's the signal to become concerned.

4. New Research Changes the Old "Talk About It" Guideline

Mental health experts have always believed that children and teens need to have the chance to "talk out" traumatic events. Counselors call this "processing" the event. We used to think that having youngsters talk about– or draw about, write about, or otherwise process the trauma– was extremely important. New brain research puts a new spin on this long-hold truth.

Studies are showing that while venting or expressing about upsetting events is still important, there comes a point when the processing can become ruminating. The key point here is that processing is supposed to help children feel better, but ruminating can really increase depression and sadness.

When does processing become ruminating? That's tough to pinpoint. Perhaps the best indicator is to watch the impact on the child's body and emotions/demeanor. If the youngster is becoming more agitated, anxious, upset, sad, or depressed, that's not good. If the youngster's body is showing increasing or beginning distress, that's also not good. If you want to help your students process the tragedy without causing harm, stick with brief headlines vs prolonged discussions, and permit no graphic comments within groups. Work individually with students who persist in making graphic depictions to avoid upsetting other youngsters.

5. Watch for Fight, Flight and Freeze Reactions

During extremely traumatic times, children tend to either engage in fight, flight or freeze behavior. These behaviors are built-in survival mechanisms common to many species. If you spot these reactions in your students who are struggling, you can educate students about how our bodies can help us during extremely difficult times by using the fight, flight or freeze reaction. Next, you can talk about how bodies also know how to recover. Discuss with students what rebounding might look like for each of them. Alternatively, have students create art, writing or digital projects portraying how they will look when they have rebounded. Having students portray this outcome can help create the outcome.

6. Radically Revised Rules for Trauma Recovery

Historically, for counselors and other mental health providers, the goal after a traumatic incident was typically to help children and teens process the tragedy. New work by Peter Levine and others, suggests that is not the correct goal, and, even worse, can result in re-traumatizing youngsters.

Dr. Levine believes that by focusing on and re-examining what happened, people re-live the scary events. Levine has studied how animals respond to trauma. After a terrifying event, animals "re-set" their nervous system and return to a focus on the present. Based on his research, he recommends that you and your children do not have a prolonged focus on the traumatic incident, i.e. don't extensively process content. Levine believes that counselors and others should focus instead on helping the ramped-up sympathetic nervous system calm.

Not sure he's right? Watch what happens to the bodies of children who are re-telling the traumatic event and/or recapping their reaction to the incident. You may notice that these students get more agitated and more upset. Now, help the child focus on the present, even perhaps momentarily forgetting the event. You can see the body relax. That's why calming the out-of-control sympathetic nervous system should be your goal instead of processing the event.

7. Cancel the Past, Replace it With the Safe Present

So, in an update to accepted practice, it appears that calming the nervous system is becoming the best goal to have when striving to help traumatized children. One of the best tools to calm the agitated nervous system is to have children focus on the present. A quick way to do that: Ask your youngsters to find 3 things that they see and like, and to tell you what they like about each thing. That stops the focus on the scary or the sad, and can help shift each child to the safety of the present. You can teach children to do that procedure on their own: To "cancel" the upsetting past, and to "replace it" with the "safe present."

8. Switch to the New Trail with Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

In the past decade or so, we've come to understand that the brain works a bit like a trail through the forest– the more you walk the trail, the more defined that trail becomes. If you switch to a new trail, that old unused trail can eventually fade out a lot or a little. Even though I am stating the research in very simple ways, that doesn't denigrate the importance of it. This new insight means that researchers know now that people can literally re-wire their brains. Brain researches often quip: Neurons that fire together, wire together. Teach students to switch trails, to leave the painful path behind.

9. When Students Say They Can't Think, Can't Learn

You may already be hearing students say they can't concentrate, they can't think, and they can't learn. There is a lot of truth to those claims. Brain researchers believe that when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the brain goes into a laser-focus mode. In nature, this single focus helped animals stay safe, but in humans this survival mechanism can persist long after it is needed for physical survival. When the sympathetic nervous system calms, your students' ability to focus, concentrate and learn should return. You can't demand students just get those lost abilities back on command. If you want to try to encourage this process, engage your students in activities that will help soothe and calm the nervous system. Even simple activities like having students talk about happy experiences or events can help.

10. Stop Thinking and Start Acting

For students who seem to really perseverate on the traumatic incidents, help them stop thinking and start taking useful actions. Actions can be anything positive, from starting a collection for the Sandy Hook students to going for a walk instead of sitting and recapitulating the upset. For students who seem to want to "rummage through the trash," teach them to "dump the trash" then take a "clean-up" action.

11. Watch Out for the Con Man

When you teach students to terminate upsetting thoughts or memories, they may tell you they feel insensitive, or callous, or selfish, or petty for not continuing to suffer. Teach students about the "con man" who will trick them into believing that the "Path of Pain" is the only path to be on. Teach students that children should never have to suffer, and any thought that suggests otherwise is just a sneaky Con Man.

12. Finding the Beauty That Still Remains

Understandably, children and adolescents may believe that there is no road back to happiness. After there is some distance in time from the precipitating event, teach students that throughout history, children and teens have triumphed overly seemingly overwhelming adversity, and that their own minds and bodies are equipped to ultimately rebound too. You want to inspire, and offer hope, but without adding any pressure, time frames, or the expectation of universal conformity. Offer students examples of children and teens who have overcome obstacles. Consider using excerpts from Anne Frank's diary to inspire older students to discover in Anne's words, "the beauty still left around you."

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    Library of Congress ISSN: 1526-9981 | Youth Change, Your Problem-Kid Problem-Solver
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Teaching in Times of Crisis: What Every Educator Needs to Know

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Teaching in Times of Crisis:
What Every Educator Needs to Know

 


News and graphic images of the recent disasters in Japan are everywhere right now. While some of your youngsters are unaffected by the tragedy, your troubled students are at high risk to deteriorate emotionally, socially, and academically– even when the crises are occurring a world away. If you're an educator, it's critical to successful classroom management and instruction, that you know which of your students are at risk, and what you should do to prevent, moderate, and manage these concerns.

workshop trainer Ruth Herman WellsI'm Youth Change Workshop's founder and trainer, Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. In this issue, we've identified the top questions that K-12 educators ask me about troubled students, along with my best answers. For educators in 2011, updating your skills is critical at a time when mental health counselors are routinely cut from school budgets. All of us here at Youth Change understand that today's educators are expected to manage more troubled students with fewer resources. If you still have questions about your troubled students after reading this magazine issue, Youth Change's no-fee Live Expert Help page is standing by ready to answer your remaining concerns.

 

HOW CAN I TELL THE DIFFERENCE
BETWEEN "NORMAL" FEAR AND OBSESSION?

You can't always tell the difference initially, but time will often give you the answer. While most children move on, or find ways to adapt, troubled students who continue to be fearful may have a problem. You can also watch for the degree of fear vs peers' reactions. Stressed children are like rubber bands. They only stretch so far before they lose their resiliency. You can use a rubber band as a visual aid to help children or parents understand "overreactions" to the Japanese disasters.

 

WHAT ARE SOME METHODS TO HELP CHILDREN
WHO ARE OBSESSIVELY WORRYING?

For younger children, use a map or globe to show the distance between the child and the disasters. Also, stress how the adults will do their best to ensure safety, and consider gently reviewing earthquake and disaster procedures in an age-appropriate manner. Older kids can be encouraged to write poetry, make collages, counsel younger children, donate a portion of their allowance to the relief efforts, volunteer to give blood,donate time to a relief agency, or make posters that encourage Japan to triumph over all the adversity they face. You can also have students undertake a fund raising project, or become involved in the many websites that have been created to help or voice support for Japan. Have students read about Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and others who found courage during frightening times. Remember that the hallmark of depression is often a feeling of powerlessness, so try to use activities that can reduce that feeling.

 

WHAT OTHER METHODS CAN YOU SUGGEST THAT WON'T DO ANY HARM AND MIGHT HELP?

For teens and children who are worrying nonstop, to the detriment of school and other crucial activities, have the child draw or write their fears, then put them in an envelope, then tell the student that you will worry about them for a while. If permitted, give the child a positive phrase or saying they can recite, such as the Alcoholics Anonymous serenity prayer: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

 

WHAT DO I SAY TO VERY FRIGHTENED CHILDREN ABOUT FEAR
WITHOUT SOUNDING MACHO OR UNREALISTIC?

You can say that fear is normal and unavoidable. Even heroes feel fear. Everyone does. Fear keeps you from walking out in traffic. Not recommended to say: "You're big enough not to be scared." Comments like that can help aim kids towards ulcers, substance abuse, and night terrors. Tell them: We all feel what we feel so we might as well all accept it. What can we control? How we respond to the fear. Being overwhelmed by fear at times is normal. The goal to suggest: accept the fear but don't let it run your life. One more idea: Teach students that they are the boss of their brains, and not to let their brain "bully" them with upsetting thoughts. Be sure to encourage students to avoid graphic images and broadcasts of the devastation, and engage their parents if necessary.

 

WHAT DO I DO IF
NONE OF THESE IDEAS WORK
TO ALLEVIATE THE CONSTANT WORRY AND FEAR?

Worst case scenario: Teach children to think "Cancel" every time they have upsetting thoughts. Alert parents and your supervisor to children who appear to be deeply troubled, and do your best to locate mental health consultation. It is critical that you moderate the academic demands on a deeply frightened child, or else you run the risk that like an over-stretched rubber band that has lost it's resiliency, the child can snap. Your goal for the classroom should be to strike the balance between being sensitive to the child's fears and your mission to educate.

 

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    Schedule the Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Workshop to come to your site. This is the one professional development inservice that produces results, results, results. Call 1.800.545.5736 now. This surprisingly affordable inservice also makes a terrific fund raiser. College credit and 10 professional development clock hours are available. Your staff will finally have the more effective, real-world tools they need to work with today’s challenging, difficult youth.

     

    Contact us now, and begin solving your worst “kid problems” today. Call 1.800.545.5736, or email.

     

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    Library of Congress ISSN: 1526-9981 | Youth Change, Your Problem-Kid Problem-Solver
    http://www.youthchg.com | 1.503.982.4220 | 275 N. 3rd St; Woodburn, OR 97071
    © Copyright 2019, All Rights Reserved | Permission granted to forward magazine to others.


Children’s Pain Relievers: Your Actions Can Ease or Worsen Children’s Trauma and Tragedy

 

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Essential Children's Pain Relievers: Your Actions Can Ease or Worsen Trauma and Tragedy

 
 

 

early education keynote speakerPresenting our Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Workshop at schools in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and Waveland, Mississippi in the past few weeks was a real eye-opener. While most of our readers will hopefully never have to cope with the level of trauma that the Gulf Coast area still faces, you still will encounter your share of youngsters coping with death, divorce, loss, abuse, and other tragedy. It is critical that you know as much as you can about working with these students as even little mistakes can be quite damaging to youngsters who are struggling.

I'm Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. I write books and give workshops on how to help children and teens to cope with crisis and trauma. I want to share with you some of my best ideas that can help children and adolescents to weather serious emotional turmoil.

We were totally shocked to see that schools throughout the Katrina region are still in pieces. We want to be of service to those of you who are teaching and counseling in tiny trailers or buildings that are still falling down. Whether you work with many traumatized children like professionals on the Gulf Coast, or you encounter them in much smaller numbers, you need to know all you can about helping these fragile youngsters. Here are some of the most important questions posed in our recent Gulf Coast workshops:
 

Helping Children and Teens in Times of Trauma

children traumaComforting Traumatized Students:
In Early Childhood Education,
Elementary, Middle and High School
 

Have more questions on childhood trauma?
Free Live Expert Help is offered on every page of our website.
 

Q: Can traumatized students become ADD?

A: No, trauma can't cause ADD, but trauma can cause symptoms that are similar to some of the symptoms of ADD. So, traumatized students can be distracted, unable to maintain focus, have trouble completing tasks, lose their train of thought, and have little enthusiasm for school. Think back to the last crisis you faced– a car accident, for example. You showed the same symptoms until the crisis ebbed. The symptoms are all normal reactions that can persist.

What To Do: During your crisis, no one could have "forced" you to function better. The same guideline is true for youngsters in crisis. Like you, they are doing the best they can. Since being in pain is no fun, most of us stop feeling bad as quickly as we can. Your students' symptoms should lessen as the crisis lessens, but for on-going crises, expect the symptoms to persist.

For Gulf Coast students still living in trailers, or for youngsters caught in an on-going battle between divorcing parents, the crisis continues– and so do the symptoms. Your expectations should rise and fall with the child's level of functioning. When a child is particularly dissipated, reduce your expectations. On days, the child is more functional, increase expectations. Your goal for distressed children: Work as hard as you can on days that you're able. Is it fair to ask more than that of any distressed human being?

Q: I thought that people are supposed to start "getting over it" one year after major trauma like a death, hurricane or divorce. Is that true?

A: The "One Year Rule" developed because the thinking is that one year after a death, for example, you've made it through all the birthdays, holidays and other painful dates that you will face after your tragedy or loss. That is a major reason why one year is viewed as a marker to gauge the pace of recovery. However, the year starts when the crisis stops. If the crisis persists then the clock really doesn't start ticking toward one year.

What To Do: You probably have no power to hasten the end of the crisis, but that is what the distressed child really needs. Until then, you proceed as described above, expecting students to work as hard as they can on days they are able. In addition, teach students that the One Year Rule is just a guide. Teach them that just as the time needed for a physical wound to heal will vary from person to person, teach them that human beings don't all heal emotionally at one single pace. Conveying this information can alleviate children's guilt over continuing to feel bad after they are "supposed to."

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children in crisisQ: Do I let children in pain use problem behaviors without consequencing them?

A: Each distressed youngster manages their distress differently. Two children can face the exact same trauma, but manage their distress utterly differently. One child may become verbally abusive while another may become almost mute. There is no "right way" for youngsters to manage pain. Even though a child faces difficulty, you can not lower your standards for acting in socially acceptable ways. Courts and police won't accept that excuse so neither can you. You also can not just suspend all customary consequences for misconduct, because the real world won't react that way. Plus, if there are no consequences for misbehavior, then there is no impetus to ever stop misbehaving.

What To Do: You can take extenuating circumstances into account as you mete out consequences. Try to strike the balance between maintaining expectations for conduct, and being sensitive to the difficult circumstances that the child is facing. Remember: "An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior." That quote is from Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor. For children who struggle with very grave crises, such as the on-going homelessness of Katrina survivors, there is no "correct" way to react.

While socially inappropriate behaviors can't be tolerated, children in crisis do the best they can. There will never be a "normal" way to react to a year of living in a cramped FEMA trailer. There will never be a "normal" way to react to feeling like a human ping pong ball in divorcing parents' brutal battle. While there may not be a "normal" way to react to overwhelming pain, the pain can't become a license to hurt others or grossly misbehave. Teach your students: "It's okay to be mad. It's not okay to be mean."

Q: Do I have many distressed students?

A: Pain is not always obvious, but here are some guesses on how much pain exists: About 15% of children cope with substance abuse in the home; 10% cope with severe emotional disturbance; 15% live with verbal abuse, beatings, or emotional abuse. A staggering 20% or more live with sexual abuse or incest. Some youngsters face pain in more than one of these areas. Kids seldom announce their distress, but it often drives their behavior. The more you can understand their behavior, the more readily you can manage it.

What To Do: Even though today's teacher works with many traumatized and acting-out students, traditional teacher training typically does not include much course work on the topic. Most teachers need to get this training that their college preparation omitted. If you want more in-depth suggestions on traumatized youth, look at the column on the right side of this page for more educational articles on working with traumatized children and teens.

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    Reprint or Repost This Article
     

    Bring the Breakthrough Strategies Workshop to Your Site

    Help Unmotivated, Failing, Troubled and Unmanageable Students

    teachermissYou have students who struggle. We have solutions for students who struggle…so your job doesn’t have to be so difficult. We have cutting-edge strategies to manage group and classroom management problems like behavior disorders, trauma, disrespect, bullying, emotional issues, withdrawal, substance abuse, tardiness, cyberbullying, delinquency, work refusal, defiance, depression, Asperger’s, ADHD and more.

     

    Schedule the Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Workshop to come to your site. This is the one professional development inservice that produces results, results, results. Call 1.800.545.5736 now. This surprisingly affordable inservice also makes a terrific fund raiser. College credit and 10 professional development clock hours are available. Your staff will finally have the more effective, real-world tools they need to work with today’s challenging, difficult youth.

     

    Contact us now, and begin solving your worst “kid problems” today. Call 1.800.545.5736, or email.

     

    Working with Troubled Students Doesn’t Have to be So Difficult
     


    Behavior & Classroom Management Problem-Solver Blog Articles

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    Library of Congress ISSN: 1526-9981 | Youth Change, Your Problem-Kid Problem-Solver
    http://www.youthchg.com | 1.503.982.4220 | 275 N. 3rd St; Woodburn, OR 97071
    © Copyright 2019, All Rights Reserved | Permission granted to forward magazine to others.