Experts to parents: Connecticut school shooting could take mental toll on children

A mother hugs her daughter following a shooting A mother hugs her daughter following a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. (Dec. 14, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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Parents should watch for behavioral changes in children shaken by the Newtown, Conn., school shootings and give them continual reassurances that they are safe, child mental health experts said Friday.

Kids may have strong emotional reactions to the tragedy, and parents should especially shield young children from media coverage, they said. Behavioral changes could be delayed, coming days or weeks later.

"We can't underestimate the impact of them listening to the news or watching it or overhearing people talk about it," said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry of the North Shore-LIJ Health System's Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, Queens.

"It is an unspeakable event. Generally, schools are safe, and this shatters that belief," he said.

Children may become aggressive, disobedient, clingy or withdrawn. Some children may want to avoid going to school, said Debbie Lyons, coordinator of mental health services for the Coalition Against Child Abuse and Neglect, in Bethpage.

Children who may have been displaced because of superstorm Sandy or whose homes suffered severe damage may be more vulnerable, said Sandra R. Wolkoff, a clinical social worker in Greenvale who has served as a mental health consultant for child care and Head Start programs.

"Children are going to come home and think there is no place safe in the world," she said. "Parents have to struggle to find language to explain crazy, dangerous behavior, and that is not so easy."

Some Long Island schools were taking steps to help children cope.

The Huntington school district posted strategies to assist children on its website Friday.

The Center Moriches district enacted its crisis team plan, with social workers, guidance counselors and school psychologists to be available Monday to assist students and staff districtwide, school administrators said.

The district will alert parents Sunday by telephone about support that will be available and post information on its website.

The crisis team will be ready Monday "to respond to any person in crisis, even the staff," deputy superintendent Lynda Adams said.

The best thing for families, Fornari advised, is "to spend more time together."

"Some kids may feel helpless or angry, and parents should know children's reactions can vary," he said. "Parents should be listening for any changes as to how the child is coping."

Terry Sears, executive director of Manhasset-based Tuesday's Children, the nonprofit organization providing support and services for the children of 9/11 victims and others affected by global terrorism, also advised parents to reassure children they are safe.

"Keep an extra watchful eye over the next weeks and months and stick to a routine, but at the same time provide opportunities for the child to speak when they are able," Sears said.

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