To help parents deal with conversations with their children about the tragic event at the school in Newtown, the Darien library invited licensed therapists to answer questions and give some suggestions on Monday morning, Dec. 17. A second session took place on Wednesday, Dec. 19.
Licensed therapists Amanda Romaniello and Katey Smith, of the Family Centers, and Maud Purcell, executive director of the Life Solutions Center in Darien, along with Darien Superintendent of schools Dr. Stephen Falcone, discussed the impact the Newtown event might have on children.
The therapists told parents the importance of reassuring their children that the Darien community and schools are taking all of the steps possible to keep them safe. If the child is a “doubter,” as mentioned by some parents, give them a “reality check,” Purcell said. Ask the child if they have been safe until now, she said.
Avoid calling the shooter “sick,” Smith advised, because young children might only associate that with a physical malady, like a cold or flu and get scared.
Children should lead the conversation about specific details, they agreed, so as not to expose them to extra images. Parents can ask vaguely if their child has heard anything from classmates or teachers.
In the long term, people who have never dealt with difficult situations might come to see a therapist because cannot cope, Purcell said. Kids who have some exposure to stress have “developed a little bit of a callous and some coping mechanisms,” she said, “hopefully they’ve watched their parents and other community members deal in a healthy manner with the crisis.”
Volunteering in the community can deal with feelings of “helplessness” and serve as a model of positive coping behavior, Smith said.
“Doing these small actions of kindness for others, it takes them out of that worry and fear and helps them refocus,” she said.
Some children may not be ready to talk about the situation, and it is up to the parent to decide what level of information is appropriate for their child, but parents should “leave that door open,” Smith said.
Parents should also monitor their child’s social media usage, especially in situations like these where online media is saturated with images. Kids may use social media as an outlet, Romaniello said. “It’s not always the healthiest outlet.”
It’s also important for parents to deal with their own grief appropriately, Romaniello said, so that they are able to handle their children’s anxiety or questions. “Take some time today before your kids come home…to do something for yourselves so that you are at a better level when they come home,” she said.
Parents should be aware of changes in their child’s mood, eating, sleeping or social habits. Though grieving is normal, extended periods of irritability or anger might require professional help, Purcell said.
Falcone, told the parents that Darien schools have an established “lockdown and seclusion” drill for situations when there is an intruder, though one parent noted that the classes have not practiced it this year. The drill includes getting the students “away from doors and away from windows,” he said. “Often times this is huddling in a corner…find that area of refuge and then you wait.” Teachers are in charge of locking and monitoring the entrances to their classroom.
Parents should ask the classroom teachers about the emergency protocol, Purcell said, before they tell the child, so not they do not ‘exacerbate’ the fear. The Parent Teacher Organizations have a role here, the therapists agreed.
“I think you can rely on the professionals in the school system to know wen the right time to do these drills is,” Purcell said.
The district would not be able to have police presence at all of the schools, for an extended period of time, Falcone said, though officers are “ready and able” whenever support is required.
Officers were on patrol at the district schools on Friday, and were also present at various times on Monday and Tuesday, including during after school activities. The police and school administration are working together to figure out what is necessary, Falcone told the Darien Times. Four security guards and the school resource officer are always present at the high school. Elementary schools have parent volunteers at the welcome desks.
Lockdown drills started sometime after the Columbine shootings, Falcone told the Times. The district has a committee, which includes Mike Lynch, facilities director, that reviews security and safety practices every couple of months, he said. They look at the procedures of everything from drills to leaking water fountains.