Mental health counselors offer insight for handling grief, emotions of children following school shooting
RIGBY — Having a conversation with a child following a traumatic event is paramount in maintaining mental health.
But how do you broach that subject? How do you handle talking to your child about events like Thursday morning’s school shooting at Rigby Middle School? How do you handle that conversation once it is initiated?
Christine Cardona, a licensed professional counselor at Answers, LLC in Idaho Falls, says the first step is to be completely open and up front. And don’t be afraid, ashamed or too shy to seek assistance.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out for help,” she told EastIdahoNews.com. “I encourage people to reach out for help. We may feel like we can handle it on our own, but sometimes we can’t, and it’s OK to be sad. It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to be anxious. But there is help.”
Following incidents like those Thursday, children will often experience emotions they are not used to and are ill-equipped to handle. Particularly for a 11- to 13-year-old child, who is in the process of becoming the person they want to be.
Parents, seeing their children experience those feelings, can suddenly find themselves battling things they’ve never seen before in their children.
But there are outlets where parents can find assistance for their children, or themselves, Cardona said, many of which will offer pro bono service for those without insurance.
Many parents will be apprehensive in seeking out help, and that is fine, according to Cardona. But those parents should be on the lookout for a behavioral shift in their child — however minute.
“Anything that is abnormal for your child — whether it’s that they’re not eating as well; they’re not sleeping as well; they went from talking to not talking as much; they went from being a happy kid to being an angry or sad kid,” she said.
Taking an emotional inventory of your child — and yourself — becomes integral at a time like this, according to Cardona.
Actions and behavior outside of the norm should be addressed. Things like nail-chewing and increased isolation can be seen as the manifestation of an internalized struggle.
The most important thing for both the children involved in traumatic events, such as school shootings, and their parents is talking openly about the incident.
“We can’t just brush it under the rug and not talk about it,” she said.
Ask lots of questions, and allow your child to ask lots of questions while assuring them of their safety throughout the conversation. A child should be given a safe space to come clean with their emotions, according to Cardona, to prevent the internalization of their fears and anxieties.
“There’s going to be tons of mixed emotions, there’s going to be tons of questions that they might have,” she said. “As parents, as teachers, as adults, somebody that they can trust, we have got to be able to open up, and talk about it.”
While watching their children face the fear of having survived an active shooter incident, parents may also become conflicted. That is also natural, Cardona said, once again saying that services are available to assist.
And these emotions will not only occur within children from Rigby Middle School or the Jefferson School District, she said. Parents of any Idaho student should be willing to discuss the events of Thursday morning with their child, again providing comfort, safety and a willingness to answer questions openly.
“For parents, it’s scary — it’s scary not knowing what’s going on. But for kids, it’s even scarier because they’re in that situation. So really encourage them, especially 12-, 13-year-olds, they’re in that age where they’re trying to figure out who they are, they’re trying to make somebody of themselves.”
As for the community surrounding the victims of Thursday’s events, Cam Melick, a counselor at Tueller Counseling Services specializing in social work, says it is best to help keep life as normal as possible around affected families.
“Kids, especially young kids, really thrive on routine and consistency,” he said.
Helping means, lending an ear, or a shoulder to cry on, or perhaps making a run to the grocery store when you see a friend or neighbor struggling.
Cameron Baxter, a family therapist at Tueller, expanded on those thoughts, saying that it is also important, in the age of social media, to allow the system to work and provide the information.
“Those kids don’t need us to take this and politicize it,” he said. “Trust the police and the system to deal with this, this is something that takes time. … I think it’s really important that the community recognizes that and respects that.”
Distributing information that may or may not be factual could also create long-lasting repercussions, he said.
With all Jefferson School District 251 campuses closed Friday, the district has made counseling assistance available at Rigby High School until 4 p.m., according to a Facebook post. Counselors will continue to be available in the coming week.
Answers can be reached at (208) 552-0855.
Tueller’s Rigby offices can be reached at (208) 745-5205 — they also have offices in Idaho Falls and Rexburg. Tueller also has a 24-hour crisis hotline, which can be reached at (208) 520-9630.