Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Each year more than 10 million children in the United States endure the trauma of abuse, violence, natural disasters, and other adverse events. These experiences can give rise to significant emotional and behavioral problems that can profoundly disrupt the children’s lives and bring them in contact with child-serving professionals. For therapists, child welfare workers, case managers, and other helping professionals involved in the care of traumatized children and their families, the essential act of listening to trauma stories may take an emotional toll that compromises professional functioning and diminishes quality of life. Individual and supervisory awareness of the effects of this indirect trauma exposure is a basic part of protecting the health of the worker and ensuring that children consistently receive the best possible care from those who are committed to helping them. https://www.nctsn.org/trauma-informed-care/secondary-traumatic-stress
When the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School were murdered, my children were 5, 8 and 11. My kindergartner was shielded from the news and didn’t know what had happened, but my older two kids knew about it, and were traumatized by it. They could imagine themselves there, in that school, on that day, in that room. They, and I imagine millions of other children experienced secondary traumatic stress. I believe an entire generation of now high school and middle school students are walking around, living every day with this diagnosis. Every day, they go to school thinking, “Is this the day there could be a shooting in my school?” Like all trauma, it can go deep into the memory, and be covered up by distractions such as studying, activities, sports, etc., but it’s always there, like a knot in a necklace it clogs the memory stream of the mind.
Parents too have this secondary trauma, but it’s different for us. We aren’t the ones walking into the school. We are the ones dropping them off. We get to drive away and feel slightly sick all day, until that feeling wears off, until another shooting happens somewhere else, and it’s all brought back again.
Teachers. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a teacher. The responsibility that is on them to both teach and to recognize that these young brains, that are not yet fully developed, are at some level traumatized, the burden is too great. They too are traumatized.
After a recent school shooting in our community, I was disheartened to see how quickly people went to their corners of defense and blame. Immediately people were blaming parents, schools, guns, entitled kids, school safety, teachers. Immediately people were fighting. In the mean time, our children our standing in the middle of the room, wondering if anyone is going to look at them. We need to care more about our children then being right. We need to act like a community first, before we act self righteous. We need to blame ourselves before we blame others. Our children are afraid and we can’t be in control and we want to fix it and we think we know the answers, and we start fighting and blaming and pushing and as a result we end up avoiding the very people we are trying to protect.
We need to show our kids what it looks like to live in a safe community, where people are held accountable for the actions and where our social norms of valuing every life and common decency is not lip service but modeled.
As you may have read, the parents who lost their children at Sandy Hook have filed a lawsuit against those who have profited on their deaths, by saying the mass murder that happened that day was a hoax.
It’s unimaginable to think that our children could be shot on any normal Tuesday afternoon. It’s despicable to think that people would deny that truth and mock that reality. When society allows for violence to occur and then denies the injustice, the society has lost its common humanity and we have lost our moral center.
We cannot allow evil to win out, and right now, it’s winning. The more we hate each other, blame each other, mock each other, and avoid having meaningful conversations about peace, reconciliation, conflict resolution, common decency, and truly model a respect for our fellow human, our children will continue to kill each other and themselves. We are responsible for the society we create. We are responsible for the denigration of the human condition. Our children are taking their ques from us.
If we want things to change, if we want our schools to be safe, and if we want our children to heal, we need to stop shouting at each other and start focusing on them. Let’s talk to our kids, ask them what they think, what do they need, what do they want in their schools, and how would they know they were safe? Let’s honor the voices of our children, and let’s respond to their wisdom. Our kids need to know that they are being heard. They need to know their trauma, either first or second hand is valid. They need to know that adults believe them, hear them, and will try to protect them. Most importantly, they need to be empowered to believe things can be different.
We can heal. We can be better. We must, for the sake of our kids.