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Children Work Through Trauma With Their Parents


How do the witnesses to an event like this morning's mass shooting, the survivors of the crime, how do they deal with the experience and overcome it? How do they do that when they're all of 6 years old or 10 years old? Psychologist Melissa Brymer directs terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. And she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DR. MELISSA BRYMER: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: And you've worked with children who witnessed or were survivors of school shootings, haven't you?

BRYMER: I have, both here in the U.S. and internationally.

SIEGEL: And what do you find is the best way to, first of all, to talk with small children about something so horrible that they've witnessed?

BRYMER: I think it's important to work through their parents. Their parents have the best understanding of how to best help them cope, how much information is needed, and most importantly, there's going to be concerns about safety right now. Are they currently safe? What's going to happen now? And to help parents with that information to support and comfort their kids.

SIEGEL: Do first or second or third graders understand that children who have been killed really aren't coming back to school next week? I mean, do they understand the idea of death of children their own age?

BRYMER: It's going to take a while to truly appreciate, just as the last person was communicating. The community is just swallowing all of this. And so it's important to help kids to understand what has happened. And when you're talking about death, sometimes with younger kids, we're going to have to talk about - they're going to have repeated questions. They might not believe. They might still wait for their classmate to return. And so sometimes being patient with caregivers, whether it's teachers or parents, with that constant questioning and help them get - guide them as they go through this process.

SIEGEL: Are there any - I know it's a small group of people, but are there any longitudinal studies where you go back and see whether there are persistent effects of having lived through events like this 10, 20 years later?

BRYMER: We know that - we have looked at some longer term, and we know that - that's - these kids are going to need - some - many of them will need treatment. But the good news is that there is treatments that can help them and their families cope with the situation, whether it's from grief-related or from trauma-related if they were in the classrooms or in the vicinity of where the shooting took place.

SIEGEL: You're talking about talk therapies or you're talking about prescriptions? What do you mean when you say that?

BRYMER: We know about talk therapies. There are evidence-based programs to help kids. And there's a lot of good people that - and professionals in Connecticut that are starting to organize and to help the school and the entire community respond, including the first responders who are - may have kids of their own. And it's a difficult response for them today.

SIEGEL: You know, I found myself listening, and on television watching, several schoolchildren describing what happened at this elementary school. And what's stunning is not how undone they are but their composure in relating what happened to them. In this case, they seem to be so young, the enormity of what's happened isn't quite accessible.

BRYMER: It is amazing. And we know that kids are resilient. So how do we help them right now with some questions that they have, which is, you know, we're hearing a lot of: Am I safe? Is it really over right now? And so how do we help them to know that? Even if the kids are in the community, there might be - is anyone helping them? So reassuring them that there are good people that are out helping those families, helping those schools right now.

SIEGEL: What's a good answer to the question why would somebody do something like this?

BRYMER: Sometimes we don't know that answer. But what we can do is, if you have those concerns, can you talk to me, can you talk to a teacher, because we want to make sure that you're as safe as possible. So it's important that we have open dialogue with our kids to talk about their concerns, and how do we act on those concerns when they happen.

SIEGEL: OK. Well, Dr. Brymer, thank you very much...

BRYMER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...for talking with us. Psychologist Melissa Brymer, a director of the Terrorism and Disaster Programs at UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.