We live in a world where violence and terrorism are all too commonplace. The 2017 terrorist attacks both in Manchester, England and a number of domestic terrorist events in the United States have served as horrific reminders that as personal and political tensions heighten, terrorism is still a huge concern for individuals and families in the U.S. and abroad.
The magnitude and frequency at which these events occur can be overwhelming, and while domestic terrorism impacts people of all ages, the frequency and newsworthy nature of these events have the potential to engender negative psychological effects among school-age children and their families.
The Manchester terror attacks in particular left a number of parents and school leaders concerned about the well-being and mental health of their children. The explosion in Manchester occurred in an entrance hall just as crowds of teens and young children began exiting the arena of an Ariana Grande concert. The attacks resulted in a number of casualties, killing 22 concert goers and injuring numerous others.1
The events have sparked a number of conversations between mental health professionals and parents. As first responders of mental health, school counselors and mental health professionals working with students need to be knowledgeable when it comes to interventions that help students and families cope and heal from traumatic events such as these.
How Counselors Can Help Families Talk About Traumatic Events
In light of the recent attacks, and any future events that may occur, it’s important that parents, teachers and administrators are prepared in being able to talk to their children about the issue. As trained mental health professionals, counselors may be some of the best equipped to help others navigate these difficult conversations.
“Terrorist attacks provide an opportunity for family discussions about difficult topics,” notes Dr. Joanna Lindell, a child psychiatrist at Advocate Children’s Hospital. “Parents don’t know whether to avoid it or what they should say. There’s no script to follow. You have to let the conversations flow naturally. Remain calm. Let your kids talk. Listen. Give the facts. Give them reassurance.”2
Though there is no one way to have this conversation, there are things to consider before having conversations with your children about traumatic events.
“Start the conversation by asking questions like, ‘What have you heard? What are your friends saying? How does it make you feel?’” Lindell shares. “Their answers will provide insight into how the child is coping.”2
Based on those answers, parents and counselors will be able to gauge how worried, anxious or upset the child is about the given situation. From there, they can determine how best to describe the events moving forward.
The simplest message you can share is that they’re still safe, argues Dr. Ellen Braaten, a child psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.4
“When these sorts of things happen, there are a couple of questions that kids have: How does this affect me?” she writes. “How is this going to affect my daily life? Are the people who love me and who care for me safe? And will I be safe? So the most important thing you can give to your child is reassurance that you are keeping them safe, and everyone around them whose job it is to keep them safe is doing that.”4
Braaten also contends that listening is far more important than speaking in these scenarios.
“I think this is an important time to do a lot more listening than talking,” she says. “I think you want to get a sense of what it is your child has heard, and spending time asking them questions about what their fears are, so that you can address those fears.”
How Counselors Can Help Students Cope with Trauma at School
School counselors play a large role in supporting their students’ learning and development, including social-emotional learning, skill development, and the ability to reflect and learn from their emotions in a healthy manner.
“These three areas are central to the role of school counselors and are essential in helping students understand and effectively address violence and terrorism,” the experts at Excellence in School Counseling write. “Violence and terrorism are powerful forces that affect students’ learning outcomes and emotional development. They affect students’ ability to construct meaningful world views and seek pathways that ensure the basic human needs for safety, personal fulfillment and community.”3
When traumatic events happen, counselors have a responsibility to the students they serve to help them comprehend the situation, console them and help them to move forward. This can be done in a number of ways.
First, students need to be able to healthily comprehend the events that have taken place. Counselors can help by learning as much as they can about the given situation, and navigating their own feelings about the issue. Once this is done, they can better help their students cope with the events.
“Phenomena such as violence and terrorism need to be understood before they can be resolved,” writes one author at Excellence in School Counseling. “School counselors’ self-knowledge about these issues is important. They need to be aware of how violence and terrorism affects them personally, what thoughts go through their minds, how they feel and in what ways they think they can respond to violent and terrorist acts. This will help them gain deeper insights into what their students may be experiencing as they are confronted with such events.”3
In order to best reach the students they serve, counselors will have to work with parents, administrators, teachers and members of the community. Violence and terrorism deeply affect everyone, and can traumatize individuals and communities. Through community dialog, reflection and collaboration, counselors can figure out the best ways to address these issues.
“School counselors, teachers and other professional support personnel need to establish dialogic interactions that will keep dealing with violence and terrorism as a necessary focus,” notes one author at Excellence in School Counseling. “This can be accomplished by newsletters, at PTO meetings and via other communication vehicles that allow parents to know how they can help reinforce their children’s learning at home.”3
When events in the community impact the emotional well-being of students, one-on-one interaction and small group interactions may be necessary to students’ well-being. Whether the event is large in scale, such as the events that happened in Manchester, or more community based, students will need the emotional support.
“The scars left from such events do not simply fade away,” Excellence in School Counseling writes. “School counselors are often on the front line in having to provide answers when there are none, and to provide comfort and support, which seems inadequate to help others come to terms with and heal the wounded hearts, minds and psyche of those devastated by such events.”3
For those who have an interest in helping people deeply affected by traumatic events, obtaining a Master of the Arts in Counseling from Wake Forest University is the first step. The need for compassionate professionals will only continue to grow, and the rewards for this career path are plentiful.