When tragedy strikes children, what can be done to help survivors?

Published: Saturday, Dec. 15 2012 1:20 p.m. MST

Molly Delaney, left, holds her 11-year-old daughter, Milly Delaney, during a service in honor of the victims who died a day earlier when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., as people gathered at St. John's Episcopal Church , Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn.

Associated Press

Images of terrified children being led away from Sandy Hook Elementary Friday — eyes closed, clinging arm-to-shoulder — add depth to the misery of the worst primary school shooting in U.S. history. These are victims, too, though we will not learn their names.

Few can imagine the road ahead for Sandy Hook's young survivors. Liz Carlston is one who can. Carlston was a 17-year-old student listening to a lecture in her trigonometry class when the shooting started at Columbine High. She remembers being escorted to temporary safety outside the school, only to join a panicky stampede of students when one of the shooters sprayed gunfire from a school window. Her sister was still in the school.

"There was fear, panic, uncertainty and a loss of innocence," Carlston remembers. "My world had been shattered."

Carlston's sister survived but was devastated by the scenes of mayhem she witnessed in the school. The two teenagers slept together in the bedroom they shared as children that night — reverting, as survivors often do, to a more innocent time. There, Carlston comforted her sister through night terrors and bouts of weeping. Meanwhile, she sorrowed over the deaths of classmates and of her basketball coach, Dave Sanders, who died helping students escape.

In the coming days, Carlston found solace for her grief through a support group formed for Columbine survivors at her church. There, she felt safe to cry. She remembers that she and her friends were reluctant to use school and community counseling resources, "because that would mean we were crazy."

She realizes now that she needed an outlet desperately, and is grateful for the practical and spiritual support her church associations brought.

"You have to talk and share what's inside you," Carlston said. "You become like a shaken soda bottle. You've got all this carbonation, and if you don't let that pressure off — by talking, talking, talking — you'll explode and damage relationships."

Talking to children

For children, even hearing about mass shooting incidents can be disturbing, and those have increased in recent years. That this event happened at a school — the most familiar place next to home — makes it even scarier for kids.

There are no right or wrong ways to talk to children about school shootings and other community tragedies, wrote psychiatrist David Fassler, in a paper for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Fassler tells parents to be honest with their children without telling all they know. Keep comments appropriate to age and developmental level.

 Remember that children are likely to personalize situations and worry about their own safety. So, limit television viewing of frightening images and violent news. If a child becomes overly fearful about safety, ask a school counselor or pediatrician for a referral so the child can be evaluated by a mental health professional, Fassbender wrote.

Sorrowful lessons learned

School counselor Sandra Austin was on the scene at Colorado's Columbine High School when two students killed 12 students and a teacher and injured 24 other students in 1999. The paper she wrote about lessons learned for the American School Counselors Association helped Jefferson School District create new crisis protocols that became a model for schools around the nation.

Austin's paper details the confusion faced by survivors of the Columbine crisis. Students who had escaped from the locked-down school were taken to a nearby school's gymnasium, where they waited for parents to pick them up. Lists of schoolmates taken to hospitals went up on walls, but the fate of students inside the school wasn't known for many hours.

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