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#WriteOnSarah: Children, PTSD and Another Act of Terrorism

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Sarah Vander Schaaff is a writer, blogger and a mother of two from New Jersey, who has struggled with Obsessive-compulsive disorder for as long as she can remember. Her courageous column in the Washington Post (“Obsessive –compulsive disorder nearly ruined her life”, January 4threceived international attention for its honesty and openness. This is the first blog in a regular series for Sarah who will write about the mental health challenges we all face in day to day life.

 

After an hour of so of listening, I turned off the news.

But that does not stop the mind’s brooding: why is there such violence?  Is anything safe? What must it have felt like to be trapped and in danger? How could a mother cope after receiving a text from her child telling her she’d been shot?

After Sunday’s mass shooting, which is being called the most deadly of its kind in our country’s history, most of us are the parameters of trauma. We watch, we read, we listen, and we may, or may not, know someone whose life was ended or forever changed by the act of terrorism in Orlando.

But terrorism has a wide reach. That, we know from too many unfortunate examples, is the point. It makes us feel powerless, afraid, and uncertain about the future.

How must it make our children feel?

There are many articles about how and when to talk with children about terrorism.  I have come to believe two things:  our children internalize our own reactions to world events.  They will have thoughts and worries they never fully articulate.

As someone who is prone to anxiety, and who still remembers what it felt like as a child to fear terrorism, although it was on remote land then—Iran, Lockerbie, Rome, Vienna—I am sensitive to how I externalize my own experience of horrific events.  I want very much for my children to be able to live without fear of that which they cannot control. Of course I want there to be less in the world to fear:  less violence, less hatred, fewer days that go from the typical to tragic.

But my job as their parent is to give my children the ability to cope, persevere, and stay resilient through life’s uncertainties, injustices, and senseless loss.

That is a tall order. But at least it’s clear. It reminds me to embrace what’s good in the world.

But knowing what I do about myself as a worrier with a vivid imagination, it takes some work. I remind myself to turn off the news, and not read smartphone alerts; speak calmly with my eleven year old about what she may have already heard; address the very real tragedy of it without promulgating more hatred or a sense that I am not confident in the power of love and goodness. But most of all, I need to recognize my tendency to imagine future acts of terrorism, the kind of imaginings that make me consider changing how I go about my life—or what I feel while living it.

After the shootings in San Bernardino during the holidays, I imagined that something horrific could happen during a holiday performance in my community.  My girls had several performances to do. I sat in the dark theatre and wondered. A man walking up the aisle prompted a tinge of panic. I had to remind myself that everyone was on high alert. But that I, in particular, needed to unravel thoughts of fear from actual danger.

I worked on noting all the times—the hours, the outings, the performances–when everything was basically fine. Instead of looking for evidence to confirm my fears, I strengthened the muscle memory that everything was okay. And it was.

But it’s not.

Not when we turn on the news or open our empathetic hearts to those killed or injured or responding to the crisis, or know someone who identifies with the patrons of the club and who now feels likewise targeted and unsafe.

So back to our children.

The American Psychological Association published a helpful guide to managing traumatic stress and coping with terrorism. One of the lead authors, Rona M. Fields, PhD, consults on the effects of terrorism and has worked in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Below are the tips they recommend for helping children cope:

Encourage children to say how they are feeling about the event.

  • Ask children what they have seen, heard or experienced.
  • Assure children that their parents are taking care of them and will continue to help them deal with anything that makes them feel afraid.
  • Help children recognize when they have shown courage in meeting a new scary situation and accomplished a goal despite hardship or barriers. Instill a sense of empowerment.
  • Let children know that institutions of democracy are still in place and our government is intact. (It can also be helpful for adults to realize this.)
  • Know that it is possible for children to experience vicariously the traumatization from the terrorist attack (e.g. watching TV coverage, overhearing adult conversations).

MHA-NYC administers the Disaster Distress Helpline, a crisis call center sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The mission of the DDH is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. In addition to helping people cope with the emotional distress after natural disasters, they are trained to help after acts of terror.

Contact information for the Disaster Distress Helpline:

Call 1-800-985-5990 or text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.


June is PTSD Awareness Month. I will have more blogs on the topic in the coming weeks. Please leave a comment or email me at writeonsarah@mhaofnyc.org. I’d love to hear from you.

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