Talking To Kids About Mental Health: The Other Topic After Sandy Hook

Talking To Kids About Mental Health: The Other Topic After Sandy Hook

As soon as I heard the news about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school, I immediately thought to myself in horror “What if one of my kids had been a victim?” I also knew as soon as I thought it that there would have been absolutely nothing I could have done to prevent it had either or both of my 11-year old twins been in the worst possible place at the worst possible time.

But my next thought was even more upsetting: “What if one of my kids had been the shooter?”

It’s a thought equally as painful to contemplate. And of course, I can think of countless reasons to tell myself why my child never could have done such a thing, but the one rationalization that I keep coming back to is the fact that our family’s commitment to taking care of our mental health is equal to our commitment to caring for our physical health.

As a mother of tweens, I am constantly carefully navigating the fine line between what they are ready to hear about my personal life (like how I dealt with my parents’ divorce) and what they still should be shielded from (like anything that happens in the bedroom). But there is one intimate detail from my life that I have actively, deliberately and purposefully shared with my children from the time that they were old enough to understand that people have feelings: throughout the course of my life, I have sought psychological help when I felt that I needed help dealing with difficult or confusing emotions.

For some parents, telling their children about seeking help for mental health would be akin to revealing that you had spent the better part of your college years stoned or that “Fifty Shades of Grey” has reinvigorated your marriage. For me, as the granddaughter of a psychiatrist, a personal consumer of individual and family therapy, and a trained social worker myself, telling my kids that mental health professionals were a critical part of our family’s health care team was a piece of insurance against the future stigmatization they might otherwise feel when – and if – they needed help themselves.

In the wake of the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, conversations about mental health, mental illness and treatment must be added to the list of issues that we discuss with our children, along with gun control, school safety and the dark, incomprehensible larger question of “how could this have happened?” If we are going to use this event as an opportunity in any way to talk about critical topics, then the stigma of mental illness and seeking treatment for it should be on everyone’s agenda. It’s already been on mine for years.

There is already lots of talk about feelings – this we know. Countless articles popped up in the hours following the shooting on “How to Talk to Your Kids about What Happened” – most with sound, age-appropriate advice on what to include, what to leave out, and how to get kids to share their questions and concerns.

If you’re talking to your kids about the Sandy Hook events, then yes, you should talk to them about how they feel, and make sure that they know that they don’t have to feel any particular way about it. But in talking to your kids about their feelings, you have an opening to let them know that there are professionals – social workers, school counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and others – whose job it is to help people manage painful, burdensome or simply confusing thoughts and emotions. They are trained to do this kind of work, and let your kids know that they don’t have to have experienced a national tragedy to want to talk to someone about their feelings. It’s also a good time to let your kids know that their school social worker or psychologist isn’t just for “kids with real problems”, as my kids have often thought. He or she is there for any kids – I would hope – who need a little help lightening their emotional load.

If you’re discussing the shooting with your kids, tell them that counselors have been dispatched to the families of the victims, to the first responders, and will be brought into the school in the days and weeks following the shooting. Make the case that many people want and need to talk to a professional about their feelings, and that in this case, it was considered a given that people would want emotional help. You can also share that some people seek therapy or counseling for a short time to deal when they need some simple strategies to manage behaviors or emotions, and still others – like the families of the victims, the first responders and likely many survivors – will want and need support for years.

And while we are telling our kids the truth about getting help for difficult feelings, we should also point out that Adam Lanza is an example of what could happen (note: not what will happen) when people don’t get the help they need. Pick the level and language that works for your family, but let your kids know that the shooter suffered from mental illness (however you choose to explain that) and that most people with mental illness aren’t dangerous at all. Adam Lanza is on the farthest end of the spectrum of what might happen when mental illness isn’t treated to its fullest capacity. Most people with mental illness may just need more help managing their feelings and actions than people without mental illness, including counseling, medication and perhaps in-patient treatment if needed. Using terms like “evil”, “psycho”, and “lunatic” about Adam Lanza may feel cathartic, but they contribute to the very stigma about mental health that may have kept his family from getting him the help he needed in the first place.

The Rambam tells us: “The soul has health and sickness just as the body has.” I admit that it feels uncomfortable and even a little bit shameful to be looking for lessons to come out of the horrible events of the Sandy Hook shooting. But thanks to years of hard work with good therapists, I am well-equipped to deal with uncomfortable, even shameful feelings. And God willing, my children will be, too.

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