How to cope with horror and learn from tragedy

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UC Irvine psychology and social behavior professor Jodi Quas has been talking to her daughters - ages 10 and 5 - this weekend.

Quas knew that she couldn’t keep them from hearing about what had happened in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday. How an armed man forced his way into a school and shot down 20 children and six school employees, and then killed himself.

Quas said she spoke to her older daughter first and told her that a man who was “very sick” had attacked a school. But she didn’t go into great detail.

“Rather than focusing on her and her safety, she and I talked about what the families might do and how the community should come together and help the families move forward,” she said. “So we really focused on the compassion side of it.”

As you’d expect with a 10-year-old, Mom’s talk didn’t answer all the questions. Quas said her older daughter, who attends a school in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, had a quick question that’s not surprising from a student who’s been through school safety drills before: Why didn’t the lockdown at the school work?

Quas said she told her daughter that the lockdown may have protected more children from being hurt, but it couldn’t stop the man completely.

Quas said the conversation with her five-year-old daughter was less detailed, but still focused on compassion and empathy.

And then came the talks with the parents of her daughters’ classmates, talks that were inevitable since they’re well aware that Quas is an expert in childhood trauma.

Quas said her advice is simple: Talk to your kids.

“Children are going to hear something about this, even if they’re standing in line with you at a grocery store or if they’re picking up on adult conversations next to them,” she said. “Because of that, you want to be the person to tell your child.”

Quas said parents should “create a space” to talk to their children so when they have questions, they can get an answer.

“If you avoid talking about it, that sends a message that this is not an OK topic,” said Quas. “And that can create fears.”

But do your talking carefully.

“As adults, we need to remember that our own anxieties and the complexity and richness of our own thoughts about these experiences that children don’t necessarily think that way,” said Quas. “And so if we project our own feelings onto children, we can create those types of anxieties and concerns.”

Quas said the Newtown incident gives parents a chance to talk to their children about “compassion and caring and empathy and concern for others.”

Adults have the capacity to reflect on profoundly tragic incidents in a much deeper way than children do, said Quas. But she said there’s something innocent and less complex about childhood that helps youngsters recover more quickly from tragedy.

For adults, recovery comes in many ways and at different speeds.

UC Irvine psychology professor Roxane Cohen Silver was the principal investigator in a long-term study into the psychological effects of the September 11th attacks. 

Silver said that shortly after 9/11, she was asked by an airline whether it should force those employees shaken by the images of jetliners slamming into New York’s Twin Towers back onto planes to help them overcome their fear.

She told them that approach wouldn’t work, and that in general each person copes in his or her own way. She said that she did not think it fair to force people back on planes because such a response was a normal reaction to the disaster.

But some people who suffer tragedy find ways to bounce back, said Silver.

“A subject in one of my studies in the 1990s was a man who lost a home in the firestorm in Laguna Beach and another in Malibu, and then lost his workplace in the Northridge earthquake,” she said. “Three losses in a very short period of time. And yet, he was able to cope very well.”

“But one of things he, and many other individuals in my studies, have said is that he was not the same man as he had been before those losses. He could cope, but he wasn’t the same person as he was the day before they occurred. He was able to look ahead and move forward.”

And in 30 years of studying how people respond to tragedy, how does Silver cope with stories of horror and loss?

“I don’t watch television. I didn’t watch it after Columbine or after September 11th. I haven’t watched the coverage of this tragedy," she said. "But when I read the story today in the newspaper, I can tell you that tears were streaming down my face.”


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