One Clarion University professor has been actively helping the children of Squirrel Hill heal in the days after the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.
Mark Lepore, Ed.D., also has some advice in how parents and guardians can help children cope after a tragedy strikes.
Lepore, a licensed professional counselor and a licensed clinical social worker, is a consultant for Jewish Family and Community Services and shares offices with other consultants in its headquarters in Squirrel Hill.
He was approached by Pittsburgh Public Schools because of his past crisis intervention work in the Pittsburgh area as well as his collaborations with Dr. Mary-Margaret Kerr. Kerr is a University of Pittsburgh professor, who also is the founder of the STAR Clinic, a division of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. She also was a former director of pupil service for Pittsburgh Public Schools.
"Pittsburgh Public Schools had a need to speak to parents and administrators about how to handle the aftermath of the shooting at the temple in Squirrel Hill. The school district was concerned about doing the right thing by communicating to parents how their children and adolescents may be reacting to crisis and trauma, what to look for in terms of normal versus abnormal reactions, and providing updated and valuable information," Lepore said. "Administrators and educators in Pittsburgh Public Schools also wanted to get some reassurance that they were doing the right things as well as looking for other avenues to help."
A series of panel discussions at Colfax Elementary and Middle Schools, Capa School for the Performing Arts, and Taylor Allderdice High School were developed to talk to administrators, educators and parents about potential responses to these traumatic events. Another panel discussion is scheduled for Brashear High School this coming January.
The panel discussions touched on the topics of:
- What is childhood trauma?
- Do young children remember traumatic events?
- What are some reactions that my child may have after experiencing a traumatic event?
- How can I help my child deal with his/her reaction to a traumatic event?
- What is the difference between a trauma, a stress response and prolonged traumatic stress?
- When should I worry about my child's reaction to a traumatic event?
- What is the difference (or symptoms) between an adjustment disorder, acute stress disorder and PTSD?
- What questions should I ask my doctor?
- What is a trauma screening or assessment?
- Do I have to get help for my child who is showing signs and symptoms of traumatic stress?
- What are some effective treatments available to help my child with traumatic stress?
- Where can a parent/caregiver get support or help dealing with child traumatic stress?
- As parents, who also are managing our own emotions regarding this event, how should we be taking care of ourselves so we can effectively support our children?
At the panel discussions, administrators learned that open communication is best.
"A lot of times administrators feel that less discussion of the incident is better for the students. There is a quote by the famous child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, 'We don't have to waste time trying to convince children that there are no monsters in the world. Children know there are monsters, we just need to give them the tools they need to tame the monster,'" Lepore said. "So, it is important then to discuss, in a developmentally appropriate way, how the students feel about any type of traumatic event, including the one in Pittsburgh, and, after the discussion, to normalize their feelings and reactions and provide methods to reduce their stress and anxiety and become more resilient."
Lepore said it's important to remember that very young children may not remember specific events, but do know when those close to them are upset and they may think they are responsible for the trauma. This may cause them to act out in such ways as fighting with a sibling, or on the other hand, seeking to protect their parents by not discussing troubling things.
Older children may ask questions, but even if they don't, it's important to discuss events in simple and reassuring terms.
Children also may act out in both psychological and physical ways. Common reactions include anxious reactions such as not wanting to leave the family for fear of something happening, regressive behavior such as becoming clingier, and feeling less confident. In adolescents, risk-taking behavior can occur or be increased.
"These reactions are distressing, but in fact they're normal. They're our bodies' way of protecting us and preparing us to confront danger," Lepore said.
Parents can help their children by:
- Limiting exposure to footage about the traumatic event.
- Supporting the expression of feelings.
- Focusing on common values instead of looking for blame.
- Channeling feelings into positive actions.
Another important way to help children is to be good role models.
"Parents and caregivers and other caring adults play a very important role in comforting and helping the child make sense of traumatic events. Therefore, parents need to be good role models in how to handle crisis and trauma, which doesn't mean reacting in a perfect way. As parents and trusted adults, we can have strong reactions, but it is important to show we are working through these strong emotions in positive ways," Lepore explained.
Keep in mind that children who have been the victim of a traumatic experience will likely have longer lasting reactions. In that case, it's important for parents to seek professional help for their children.
"As a first step, it is helpful to consult with a mental health provider who can conduct a trauma-focused assessment and offer the appropriate treatment. Although it can be a difficult first step to take, children often respond well to trauma-focused treatment and symptoms can begin to improve in several months," Lepore said. "Parents can get help from their doctors and from those who are experienced in working with mental health issues of young children and their families."