In the face of Tragedy – Listening and Self Care By: Lora Matz, LICSW Clinical Education Specialist

In the face of tragedy what we each share is an increased sense of vulnerability.  We share a heightened desire to protect and care for the children entrusted to us and to minimize anxiety or trauma to them.  We also have an increased need during times like this for self-care and setting aside time for introspection in order to get to the place of being able to mindfully and intentionally respond with ability rather than react out of what is triggered in us.

It is important first of all to engage in good self care and talk about your own anxiety and fears with another adult. Young children will respond to your pain and tension without necessarily knowing what it is about.  It is important to maintain close and loving relationships with children and adolescents of all ages. Take charge by limiting exposure to the media.  If children have been exposed to traumatic images or media or have questions and concerns based on what they are hearing from peers, make yourself available for whatever emotions they need to give voice to and be willing to LISTEN!  Listen to their questions and concerns. You don’t have to have all the answers.  Listening deeply is a great gift. Appropriately sharing your own feelings of sorrow, anxiety and confusion provides a way of modeling to children that it is helpful to be in touch with and express feelings. This level of listening and sharing produces a powerful bridge of connection.  Connection can be one powerful antidote to feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and despair. Rushing in and trying to offer advice is not helpful, this approach often shuts children down and doesn’t help them to continue to stay open nor does it help them to feel connected with.

Children respond to how we treat them and hear them. The nature of the brain is such that shifts in thinking, relaxation and a sense of completion are most likely to happen when a individual  “feels felt” by us.  Empathize with their feelings as much as possible.  By listening deeply before you help redirect a child, you keep the bridge of communication open.  It is critical that children not only feel heard and seen, but feel as though they have an ally and resource in you.  Talking about feeling overwhelmed or vulnerable is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength and provides an opportunity for learning.  Let your child or loved one with mental health challenges or colleague, whoever it might be know that you really get it.  Your full, undivided, present moment attention is invaluable!  Empathizing with the feelings that a child or another individual expresses doesn’t mean you are agreeing with them.  You are empathizing with the feelings.  Empathy MUST come first!  Perhaps, we disagree with the feelings—feelings are transitory in nature, they come and go by the minute. The nature of the brain and psyche is such that unless we tune in and accept where another person is, the brain has difficulty shifting out of the state of anxiety, anger, fear  and relaxing into a new one, or even hearing new perspectives and being redirected  until it feels heard.

The truth is traumatic events occur; the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, other instances of violence in the United States involving random shootings, the devastating storms that rocked the east cost a few weeks back, the tornado that devastated North Minneapolis a couple of summers ago or the I 35 W bridge collapsing a number of years ago in Minneapolis.

All of these events were traumatic to the individuals involved and touched closer to home in some cases than others.  We would hope that trauma never touched any of our lives, but we are reminded again and again that it could and it sometimes does, or we are touched by it from a distance that comes very close to home.  Our primary source of protection from becoming traumatized our selves when trauma touches us vicariously from a distance is in increasing our understanding of  how to best stay open and connected to others, to talk about our feelings and increase our self-awareness of ways to engage in proactive, ongoing growth and self-care and to stay actively engaged and connected to those we love and care for.