The survivors of the Sandy Hook massacre face many challenges: grieving family members, colleagues and friend; overcoming fears, and managing feelings of helplessness and despair. These challenges will be difficult to manage, and take a long time to overcome.
But perhaps the greatest challenge is moving on, picking up the fragments of lives forever changed, and building a positive future for themselves and the ones they love.
That’s what psychologists are talking about when they urge parents to get their children back into familiar routines. Because if left unattended, trauma stops a life in its tracks.
The mind keeps returning to the original horror as it struggles to correct what happened, to fix it, to make it right. Psychologists call it “compulsive repetition”– the need to redo what’s wrong and make it go away. It’s like picking at a scab. You can’t just leave it alone.
But it’s not the traumatic event itself that traps children in relentless cycles of reenactment. It’s how adults respond. Children have the best chance of moving past the debilitating effects of trauma when the adults around them are able to provide trauma-sensitive care. This means being emotionally available, anticipating needs, and reassuring them about their safety. Not always easy, especially if the adults themselves have lived through the same trauma.
To make it work at Sandy Hook, teachers need recognition as the important partners they are in reducing the legacy of violence and trauma. School staff needs access to trauma-specific training, clinical supervision, and inclusion in professional networks of mental health providers. These collaborative partnerships can help teachers replenish themselves and, in turn, support children’s efforts to heal and move on. Without that support, the trauma of December 14, 2012 threatens both the freedom and promise of everyone involved.