For nearly 30 years, my work in child and adolescent psychiatry has taught me that children of divorce are especially vulnerable to feelings of impending loss.
Divorce is never easy for a child, even in a highly conflicted marriage. These children frequently blame themselves for the failure of the marriage and wish their parents would reunite. Years after living separately, parents still may be prone to squabbling over many things including money and visitations, with the child often feeling trapped between them.
When an event like the Newtown, CT shootings occur, all children will be confused and frightened by it, but children of divorce -- who are more insecure than others -- may feel more vulnerable, even if they are only vagely aware of the actual events.
Since it is widely known that the parents of Adam Lanza were divorced, and he was living with one parent, his mother, children of divorce may read shades of their own lives into this terrible story. Further, since his first murder victim was his mother, a child aware of this, whose parents are divorced, might become deeply shaken and afraid that such a loss might strike him or her.
To offer comfort and counsel to children and families struggling with this nationally traumatizing chain of events, I am offering a series of recommendations for concerned parents.
First, parents must understand that the Newtown, CT massacre is truly a traumatic event impacting many children in many parts of the country. There is no denying or avoiding this terrible reality. As studies of other shootings at schools have documented, the closer to the event one is, the more severely one suffers later on from post-traumatic symptoms.
With the deep penetration of the media into so many facets of our children's lives, these horrendous events are striking home, even thousands of miles away from the actual event. Visuals from this horrific event are just one click away on a computer or television screen. We might call this second-hand trauma in our own living rooms, which is why it is critical to monitor your child's media consumption.
Second, divorced parents do well to confer with each other and agree that, regardless of any areas of dispute, they must work in tandem to cope with their children's needs in this time of distress. Parents should speak with their children's education counselors to learn how the schools are proceeding to cope with this matter. It is vital that the triad of parents in two households, and school personnel, take a team approach to working together to share information and concerns.
Third, it is important for parents to think in developmental terms. A younger child, before the age of 8 or 9, will think of these events quite concretely. Upon seeing news footage every night, the child may wonder if the event is happening yet again.
Such children might do well by being kept sequestered from such representations of events. Otherwise, they may grow confused through the replaying of these events, as we now know from the experience of children repeatedly seeing the news reports on television concerning the World Trade Center disaster in New York. These children may need assurances that their schools will not be attacked tomorrow, and their mothers, or themselves, will not be murdered.
As for older preteens and teens, they are more able to see the events in growing abstraction, or want to discuss more complex issues like the legality of automatic rifles, or the thorny concept of a boy having such anger toward a parent that he kills one of them. They may want to talk about what the diagnosis of Asperger's actually means. What do their parents think? Parents must not shirk such levels of deeper analysis, but offer thoughtful opinions. Kids often are smarter than we think, and parents must work to encourage their complexity of thought, which often can ease the adolescent's anxiety.
In short, such conversations should be encouraged, not hindered, and need to be at a level which the child easily can grasp. Parents must be emotionally available to enter into open, albeit upsetting, dialogue about related issues whenever children show a desire to do so. At any point, desultory perspectives and wild rumors may emerge at their schools, or among their peers.
Some children tend to mull over worrisome matters during the day that may surface, as if out of nowhere, after returning home from school, during a meal, or especially at bedtime
The parent should follow the lead of the child, allow questions or theories to be stated, no matter how illogical sounding they seem, and listen carefully, offer honest answers, and above all let ambiguities and uncertainties be aired, to open avenues for further dialogue.
Above all, and let me reiterate my first point, parents must work together, share information, and not compete with each other. While not injecting too many of their own strong emotions like anger or anxiety into the mix, they must make it clear that they are both emotionally available and willing to offer counsel and support.
Finally, when a child begins to show signs of sleep disturbance such as nightmares, or fear of going to school, or of leaving Mom's house to go to Dad's, or when a child on a sleepover calls in the middle of the night and wants to come home, parents must be open to seeing such problems as not surprising.
Given the depths of the national trauma, and the potential for second-hand trauma in the individual child, parents must set aside their own needs to meet the needs of the frightened child. If symptoms linger and worsen, parents might choose to seek psychotherapy for the child who is especially fearful and ruminating in the wake of this national tragedy.