In light of the recent events at Millard South High School, parents across the area have become particularly aware of the need to have open communication with their children. Gina Oliveto, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Alegent Health Psychiatric Associates explains that the best time to open that line of communication is now - before it's needed. That way children will feel comfortable going to their parents in times of great stress or trauma.
In the following series of questions, Dr. Oliveto also addresses techniques parents can use to help their families cope with traumatic experiences - whether related to the recent shooting or not.
How should parents address a traumatic issue with their teens, in order to help them cope?
TRANSCRIPT: I think the best thing for parents to do after a trauma related to their children is to provide an atmosphere where their child feels comfortable talking with them about the issue, asking questions, being very nurturing and just keeping their own anxiety and stress level down so that child feels comfortable just disclosing their own feelings about it.
It’s important to allow the child to vent, because keeping feelings and ideas about what happened inside and not sharing it can lead to the child having more anxiety, more apprehension about taking a chance the next day with going to school. There could be some misconceptions that a child would have that an adult would not have and the adult could maybe clarify something.
I think the best thing to do is to be very calm, nurturing, provide that good atmosphere and allow that child to disclose on their own terms and talk about what happened.
What if a teen internalizes the anxiety to try to "look cool"? How can parents break through to help them cope?
TRANSCRIPT: If parents have a decent rapport with their child and can get the child engaged in something, an activity, a game, a dinner – something where it’s not putting pressure on them to just sit down and talk, kids have an easier time opening up when you are doing another activity and before you know it they may start to disclose and then they won’t feel the pressure not to show emotion. It’s easier if they don’t feel like they’re actually supposed to talk. Distract them with something else. We use that all the time with small children in engaging them in play therapy so they can talk, and you can do that with teen-agers, too.
What tips can you offer to help teenagers cope?
TRANSCRIPT: People need to turn to each other:
Turn to your friends
Turn to the people with you to talk about what happened and support each other
Listen to each other’s feelings about it
Don’t be embarrassed to talk about how you really felt
Be very nurturing and listen to one another
You can also turn to your parents and to counselors that the school provides to talk about what happened one-on-one or perhaps in support groups
A really important thing to know whenever there’s been a trauma is to try to keep good sleep and eating cycles. Don’t change too much about your lifestyle because you’ve already had a traumatic thing happen that makes life seem kind of scary, surreal and unsafe. As much as you can keep to your routine, it will give you a sense of safety.
It’s also important for teen-agers to avoid unhealthy coping, which is turning to drugs or alcohol or unhealthy lifestyle choices for a quick fix on bringing their anxiety down.
How much time does it take for a child to cope with life after a trauma?
TRANSCRIPT: Teenagers are really creatures of habit. You can see that they have a certain way of eating, sleeping and hanging out with their friends and when lifestyle changes – like their appetite would rapidly increase or decrease, sleep would be nonexistent or way too much, they suddenly go from hanging out with friends to isolating at home, and normal activities like sports, academics or clubs would drop off. Their motivation and their joy for things would drop off; their level of functioning would go down.
Then you start to get concerned that they’re going through what we call an acute stress reaction which can lead to a post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly if people witnessed this violence directly. Then you say to yourself, if this doesn’t turn around in a few days with good nurturing from the parents and help from the school counselor, that’s a time you want to think about does this child need some outside counseling besides what the school provides if that level of functioning is not coming back up as it should. That can include their mood, too– if there is a sense of joylessness.
When should parents seek outside help for their kids?
TRANSCRIPT: A lot of it depends on if the person had direct involvement or close relationship with either the perpetrator or any of the victims and also what they witnessed as far as the trauma. There are a lot of different variables. But a standard student at the school, because - by virtue of the fact that they may be afraid to go back and there's a different vibe at the school - if they are still having problems coping to the point that they can't really function well enough to feel comfortable at school, their anxiety is high or things like sleeping, eating and activity levels.
How should you address a child's fear that school is no longer a safe place?
TRANSCRIPT: It is reasonable to expect that they’re going to have questions about it and to allow them to talk about what they worry about in their own school. If there is something or someone they think may be at risk for harming other people or they think is an unsafe person to let them talk about it. By talking about it, they may actually have a decrease in their anxiety, and you can answer some questions, clear up misconceptions, reassure them that if they have any concerns they can talk to you as their parent, to the principal and counselor.
It’s my hope that, in light of what’s happened at one school, other schools may look at in-services or ways of communicating to students and teachers policies and programs for keeping everyone safe.
As far as talking to your own child, a parent would want to look into these things. If there’s any positive that can come out of this, it's that we can all be informed about the need to really make sure school is a safe, positive environment for kids and we can look at, “did we miss anything?” or “is there anything we could have put in place at this school or other schools?”
Reassure them that after something like this, typically, environments get safer, because we make institutions and systems better after something this. Just providing an environment where they can talk about what their worries are about their own school so it decreases their anxiety so they can actually get out and go - that’s the first step.
What if your child is friends with a suspect in a trauma or other crime?
TRANSCRIPT: That’s a really special circumstance because the child who was friends with the perpetrator is definitely going to have a really tough emotional road ahead because of the mixed feelings they would have, particularly if they had no idea of this person’s intent. I think it’s really up to the parents to not let that go, to have a conversation with the child about how they felt about the person, was there anything going on that they saw with that person, and to give them a chance to express how they feel about the death and, if there were good things about that person, to honor it. Nobody is 100 percent good or 100 percent bad and there may be some really good things about their friend that need to be validated and respected.
If not, the child could feel guilty that they should have known, they should have done something and it’s important to nip that in the bud so that they don’t feel somewhat responsible themselves because they were friends with that person, because that can happen. There can also be some possibility of everybody that was friends with that perpetrator being wrapped in the same blanket and there could be some fallout. To prepare the child, asking questions, being supportive, not being judgmental and certainly alleviating any possible guilt that person is feeling from being friends with him are important.