Tips for talking to your children about the Perry Hall shooting

August 28, 2012|By Sarah Kickler Kelber | The Baltimore Sun

I don't know what to say about the shooting yesterday at Perry Hall High School. I can't imagine the circumstances that led to this day. I can't imagine the confusion of the freshmen trying to get their bearings on their first day of school. The anguish of parents knowing that someone had been shot and not being able to reach their children. The chaos faced by the teachers. The devastation experienced by the victim.

It's just too much to process, to express. I was thinking about writing about how to talk to your children about school shootings, about bullying, about trauma, about kindness. But I didn't know where to start, and I'm no expert.

But Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is.

Grossman, the director of Warrior Science Group, is an expert “in the field of human aggression and the roots of violence and violent crime.” He’s written extensively about the psychology of combat, and he’s worked with mental health professionals after mass school shootings all over the United States, including at Virginia Tech.

In his book "On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace," Lt. Col. Grossman hits on a number of issues that can help parents and educators figure out how to talk to their kids about the shooting.

-- It's normal to be thankful that you weren't harmed in a traumatic event -- and to feel guilty about that relief: After visiting teachers the day after a major school shooting, he explained to them that they shouldn’t feel guilty about their concern for themselves: "I told them that it is similar to when the stewardess on an airliner tells them that if there is a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down, and they should put on theirs before they help small children. The first response of the organism is to take care of itself first, and that is okay, because that is simply the law of nature. After I explained this to those teachers, several of them laid their heads down on a table and began to sob with relief. … If you know in advance that it is normal upon seeing trauma and death, to think, 'Thank God it wasn't me,' then that thought will not have the power to hurt you later."

-- His second "debriefing principle" is that "pain shared is pain divided." “In the stress of a violent situation, the tendency to accept responsibility for what happened can be a powerful one. The midbrain can hit you with an it’s-all-my-fault response.” He goes on to describe how after a mass shooting at a middle school, many of the children worried thusly: "'If I had just been nicer to him on the bus on Friday maybe he wouldn’t have been mad at us.' … 'If I had just said something to him in the hallway on Monday, maybe he wouldn’t have done this.' …" The teachers' mindsets were the same. He explains that when a police shooting happens, there is a debriefing at which everyone shares their fears that it was their fault, but “as the debriefing unfolds, each member figures out that it cannot be everyone’s fault and by the time it ends, each person walks out with his fair share of the blame. They came in with the weight of the world on their shoulders, and they walk out with their fair share. … Sometimes just being educated about the it’s-all-my-fault response can help put things in perspective and send someone down the path of healing." (Note: He’s not arguing here that we shouldn’t make an effort to reach out and to be kind, just that no one person can or should bear this burden.)

-- One thing Grossman discusses that, despite having read coverage of many (too many) school shootings, I’d never seen talked about before was this: As a response to stress and trauma, junior high and high school girls can experience a cessation of their periods. Concurrently, another normal response to surviving a traumatic situation can be an increased sex drive. Thus, he writes: “We know there is an ongoing level of sexual activity among high school and middle school students, and after a horrific incident … there is going to be an even greater level of sexual activity. How do you think the girls are going to react when they fail to have their periods? Stressed? Do you think it might stress those boys out, too? We think some of the extreme stress response, and perhaps even some of the suicides that occur in the first two months after these horrendous events, might be linked to this phenomenon.” He suggests making sure that, say, teachers warn the girls’ P.E. class “that their periods might stop in response to what they had experienced … [and that] it does not necessarily mean that they are pregnant.”

I hope some of these insights might help inform some tough conversations with kids who have gone through such a life-altering experience. How have you been talking about these issues with your children?

P.S. "On Combat" is a fantastic book for anyone who's been deployed or who works in a traumatic atmosphere (ie, on the police force). Highly recommend.

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