Connecticut Elementary School Tragedy: Beginning the Healing Process

Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.  (AP)

A gunman opened fire Friday inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, killing 27 people, including 18 children.

Students were told to close their eyes by police as they were led from the building -- some were crying, others looked visibly frightened, as they were escorted by adults through a parking lot, holding onto each other’s shoulders.

As the investigation continues, parents across the country are becoming panic-stricken, wondering how they can move forward and feel safer taking their children back to school, a place that many view as a second home for their family.

Joshua Klapow, a psychologist and associate professor in the department of health care at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, believes several groups, including first responders, need to be focused on moving forward.  Newtown, Conn., recognized as a small, affluent town of about 27,000, may have had police and firefighters who knew the victims and their families.

Klapow states parents may be experiencing acute psychological trauma.

“People are absolutely in shock right now and it’s something that’s important because it’s designed to protect people emotionally,” says Klapow. “Parents may not be acting rationally. They may not be able to process information. They may not be able to pay attention or think straight. It’s a way for our emotions to shut everything down because the situation is so horrific we’re not ready to deal with it. “

Consequently, parents unable to cope with the ongoing situation need “psychological first aid,” giving people the opportunity to fully express what they’re feeling as the first step to recovery.

“These people need, more than anything else, to have other people there support them,” says Klapow. “What that means is to just be there to listen, to hold them if they feel like crying, to be there if they need to get angry. This is what the grief counselors on site are doing. In other others, I’m here and I’m going to stay calm so that you cannot be calm.”

Once families let go of their emotions to a grief counselor, they should then reach out to their children, assuring them that they will be secure, and that their schools are doing everything to keep them safe. 

While some parents may feel concerned about their school’s safety, Klapow explains it’s crucial now more than ever to raise their concerns to better move forward and feel a sense of empowerment over the tragic case.

It’s crucial, however, not to expose children, especially those in elementary school, to the ongoing coverage.

“Change the channel and put on something else,” he advises. “Young kids should not be watching this, especially the way it’s coming out, which is uncut, raw footage."

"As a parent, what you need to do instead is communicate with your children and let them know you will do everything you can to keep them safe," he says. "Some kids are going to have concerns, and some kids aren’t. What we don’t want to do as parents is push our concerns onto them. If your child is asking questions, you answer them to the best of your ability, you let them know they’re going to be safe. But don’t force your child to talk about this right now because every child is going to feel differently.”

As more information unfolds about the shooting, Klapow concludes communication and being surrounded by loved ones is key to beginning the healing process.

“That’s what people can do for each other now,” he says. “They just have to be together and let these emotions play out. This is critical right now.”