Neal: Trying to make sense of Sandy Hook tragedy

In any town, any city, any school and any home, people are trying to make sense of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary. And when sense can’t be found, spirituality can’t console and answers don’t satisfy, people turn to blame.

Blame can allow anger, can streamline grief and can force the brain to accept what it could not otherwise imagine doing and thus, we need it.

And yet, even that is not satisfactory to relieve the pain associated with the loss of the basic goal that everyone strives for…safety. With far-reaching arms, this kind of act makes everyone stand at attention.

It is the rattling of our core substance that is unnerving. A basic need was shattered, the need for safety. It is the primary need that I was first taught in psychology class, that all human beings must have before they can manage in any other area in their life. This was shattered the day a young, disturbed man took the lives of his mother, teachers and innocent young children before taking his own. This basic sense of safety was shattered around the world and painfully reminded everyone that all people are vulnerable, all people are susceptible to death, even little children. And in the end, we have no control. This event in and of itself promotes mass trauma, mass pain and confusion and with that also risks promoting more violence.

As far away as our small town is from the small Connecticut town, its events are overreaching. The similarities cannot be ignored, small town, tight-knit community with caring people that take pride in their schools, their families, their businesses. This is evidenced daily when you see support for our teams, benefits for families in need and activities creatively being sought to enhance community involvement, all efforts that we are taught prevent acts such as those at Sandy Creek. So, fear sets in…as a town. “It can happen there; therefore, it can happen here.” And the mass panic begins as we ask ourselves, how can we prevent this? And then, there are the children. There isn’t an adult, with or without kids, who wonders how they can protect the children. How do you protect those that cannot fend for themselves, that are taught to be polite, reinforced for being friendly, and have had no developmental exposure or frame of reference to the evils of the world, even on the most basic level? We, as a society, who give ratings to video games and movies, who measure kids for rides, monitor their diets and opt for the corn maze instead of the haunted house, all in the name of protecting and offering the one thing we have learned they need to feel in order to trust…”safety.” We learned that day that as parents, educators, police officers, soldiers, big brothers and sisters, we as a whole, cannot protect our children and the ramifications of that may be as tragic as what just happened to those innocent little children of Sandy Creek Elementary.

So, what do we do with that? I say what I do so that as you read you can become more aware of your own feelings, out loud and bold, and your own need for safety, both in having it and providing it. As a therapist, I hear of senseless tragedies of all kinds, almost daily with individuals. So, mass emotional response to tragedy can be concerning in that it can be very volatile, painful and unhealthy to a community, to ourselves and to our children in how we respond. It is important to first recognize where you are on the pendulum of grief, fear and anxiety and know what you can do to keep our children and community safe.

There are a few basic things we need to keep in mind when responding to traumatic events:

• Maintain a normal routine: The best thing you can offer children is the stability of a consistent and normal routine.  They count on it.

• Remain calm when talking: Don’t show heightened stress. Children are responsive. If you are stressed, they will be as well.

• Answer questions with simplicity. Using words like “trauma” creates increased confusion. Remember the framework of their minds. They don’t understand an emotion they haven’t experienced. And in those cases where children may have experienced trauma, they may relive their own and increase their fear. Use words like “it makes us sad” as opposed to “that was awful and senseless.”

• Do not have the news and TV on that replays the scenes and stories over and over. It works with brain mapping for them and they will fill in the gaps and may become increasingly fearful in daily living. In other words, don’t create trauma. Don’t embellish or speculate about what has happened and what might happen. Don’t dwell on the scale or scope of the tragedy, particularly with young children.

• Spend extra time reading or playing quiet games with your children before bed. These activities are calming, foster a sense of closeness and security, and reinforce a sense of normalcy. Spend more time tucking them in. Let them sleep with a light on if they ask for it.

• Be aware of signs out of the ordinary. Increased anxiety, lack of eating or trouble sleeping. Seek guidance if this is increasing.

• Provide safety and confidence in daily activities.

• In schools, avoid announcements to address these things over the PA, but speak face-to-face as often as possible. This validates a child of all ages.

• Avoid blaming and targeting. Not all people with mental illness, autism, or taking medication are at risk of being dangerous. Don’t promote unhealthy bias. However, spend time paying attention, being aware and offering assistance, if necessary, for those that may be in need. Creating and reinforcing stigmatism as opposed to obtaining help and support perpetuate the risks that don’t need to be there.

Unfortunately, there are other considerations in our responding to this kind of trauma. Events that create such sensationalism also create copy cat syndromes. There are those that respond with fascination or even awe at the attention one person gains from such acts. This is so appealing that it blocks out the concept of harm and empathetic response and instead focuses on the attraction of being recognized. There are those children and adults that have, for whatever reason, remained isolated, overlooked and in the shadows, whether by their own making or response to external issues such as peer response, trauma or maybe abuse.  An increased fascination to gain attention, be known, be seen or noticed grows as the focus on events grow. After sensationalized events, there is often a rise in similar acts or threats of such. It is important to be aware of this, to know it can exist and to be prepared to prevent and respond.

• Take notice of kids that isolate.

• Take seriously those children, typically adolescents, that make light of, joke and verbalize threats in seeking a humorous or attention-seeking response. This is not to say they will act on it but by taking them seriously, with an increased accountability and limited conversation, this can prevent further need for attention seeking in this way.

• Be aware of those children that listen intently, seek the news and ask very little. These are those that need the attention in a positive way. Not seeking a spotlight, but needing a connection. Give it to them.

• Respond to, but do not increase sensationalism and/or attention to copy-cat actions.

• Have children or your family write a letter or send items to help the families and victims.  This keeps the focus on the families, on healing a community, and on empathetic and positive responses and growth to traumatic events. It promotes healing and a connection with the proper source.

Finally, I offer, that as a community and in your homes, use the strength of your neighbor, your friend, your community members, your counselors, therapists and clergy. It is strength and support that will gain security and safety not fear and anxiety.


Diane Neal is a therapist in Princeton providing individual, family, adolescent and group counseling.