It is impossible to escape the coverage of the tragedy of Newtown, Conn., and no less so this week as the heart-breaking obituaries of the children who died in the school shooting are published. As schools have debated how much teachers should say in class – and parents ponder how to discuss it at home – the suggestion this week by Ontario’s elementary school teacher’s union that its members wear commemorative black arm bands, in class or on the picket line, has led to criticism from mental-health professionals.
“That’s just making kids fret a bit more about it,” says Dr. David Wolfe, a head of prevention science at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “We don’t want to keep bombarding them with our worries.”
Wolfe says it’s better to let children lead the discussion at school, especially since many parents may prefer to control the content at home. The suggestion also appears to run counter to the advice being sent out by school boards to parents, which recommends taking a “news break” from the tragedy. That’s hard to do when students are looking at a black arm band in class all day.
In a society already driven by stranger-danger fears, Wolfe says it’s important to put the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School into perspective, to stress that it’s an unusual event and to normalize the worry that results when it happens.
“For the most part, that’s a normal human reaction to tragedy,” Wolfe says, suggesting that children affected by the tragedy may become more clingy or have trouble sleeping. They may also act out school or home – a reaction more typical in boys.
“It’s okay to say, especially to kids over 6, ‘Does anything about this worry you?’ And it’s okay for parents to say, ‘This frightens me too.’ ”
At the same time, Wolfe says, “You don’t want to build worry and fear that they have to be vigilant all the time to see if someone is carrying a gun.”
In younger kids, reaction to the shooting may centre on vague “bogeyman” fears, which can prompt nightmares or concerns about going to school. The concerns of older kids are more rooted in reality. “When you are 10,” he says, “you know that people do hurt each other. You know there is violence in the world. And so those kids might get anxious thinking that the world is an unsafe place.”
Most of that heightened worry will subside on its own, though Wolfe stresses that parents need to assess their child’s individual reaction, especially if they already have issues with anxiety. “Kids need to get back to their routine because this is something that just crashed into their lives.”
If the anxiety doesn’t decrease over time, or if parents see their child becoming overly fascinated with the event, talking more about violence, or acting aggressively at school, Wolfe says they shouldn’t hesitate to seek out professional advice. “There is nothing wrong with seeing someone for help, simply because you aren’t sure if you should see someone.”
In the end, he says, “We want to acknowledge that this is currently distressing. That it’s important to talk about it. And they will get over it.”