Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Let's Talk...Greenhouse Responds to Sandy Hook

Written by Cynthia Davis, Ph.D., licensed psychologist on our staff, for our quarterly newsletter, "Seedlings":

"We want to extend our condolences to the families of the victims of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut.  A month has passed since this heartbreaking, unthinkable event occurred, and while the initial shockwaves it sent across our nation may have slowed, the aftershocks are as real and powerful.  It will take time and caring, thoughtful discussion to process its meaning for each of us as individual people, as families, as institutions, and as communities.
As members of this community whose members include children and adolescents with autism, their families, and providers of services, we have been especially aware of the impact of media reports that the shooter, Adam Lanza, may have had various diagnoses such as a personality disorder, Asperger’s, or high-functioning autism.  These reports seemed to lead to an assumption that a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, or a mental health disorder, might be causally linked to violence. This stigma, and the fear of the stigma, filled the internet for many days after the shooting. We want to join our voice with the voices of others who have made it clear that autism was not and is not the “cause” of violence.  As the American Psychological Association has stated, violence is a learned behavior, not a symptom of a disorder. And the American Psychiatric Association made clear, the vast majority (96%) of violent crimes are committed by persons who do not have a mental disorder.
While we may not be directly connected to the families at Sandy Hook, we still will have our response to this trauma from a distance. Parents attending our January 14th Fireside Chat at Greenhouse on this topic shared their personal responses including fear for their children’s future acceptance by others.  We all want our children to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance with others, but we fear they may be stigmatized out of fears and misunderstandings.  Some parents fear having teachers or other parents misunderstand their children’s expressions of frustration or grief and quickly jump to assumptions that their children may be violent.  And some expressed fear for the future when they have difficulty now helping their children manage strong negative feelings.  Fear naturally arises when you don’t know what to do to help a child you dearly love. Then when you peer into the future when your child will be bigger and stronger, this fear can make it hard to chart a calm course for helping your child.  It is hard to hope when you are scared. 
Here are some suggestions for “staying the course” with yourself and your child:
1)  Reassure yourself that even in the midst of such media and internet storms, there are many people out there who think carefully and love well. They will be available to help advocate for your children and for you.  Look for them, talk with them, be one of them!

2)  Remember that hope can come from taking the “long view.”  A difficult day with your child or for your child today does not dictate future disasters.  You can reflect on the difficulties, by yourself or with someone you trust, and make wise and loving decisions that will make things better in the long run.

3)  Empathy makes a difference.  Keep working to help your children learn to regulate their feelings.  The DIR/Floortime Coalition of California advocates that we focus on “parenting skills that emphasize empathy, understanding children’s individual profiles, anticipating anxieties, and dealing with discipline in a way that does not lead into power struggles.” It may take some time, but consistently working to understand children, to help them “feel felt,” can build their emotional regulation.

4)  Practice advocacy.  Sometimes, when you are in a situation where your child is criticized or misunderstood, it feels too hard to stick up for him in a positive and firm way.  It can help to come up with a few lines that you can practice ahead of time and have ready in your “back pocket” for situations such as these. 

5)  Help children anticipate that there are people available to help them by:
a. Recognizing that they need help when they seem disregulated, and helping others around the child to recognize this too.
b. Having the child practice ways to cope in situations that are likely to be anxiety-provoking, such as asking for help during those situations, and then celebrating successes afterward.
c. Participating in communities where empathy and caring are strong values.

6)  Remember that our children may process things differently from “neurotypical” children.  They may be drawn to graphic details in stories, not because they like those details, but because they fear them and need help processing distressing memories or fears.  They may need you to talk with them while they are “doing” something else because an active body helps manage strong feelings.  They may need to use strong words at first, and then gradually learn to refine those words.  They may need you to “see” their struggles because words are not an adequate expression of their affect.

You will probably have many more ideas of your own.  Please share them with us!  Most of all, we want to encourage open, reflective dialogue with each other about this issue, and whatever issues may have arisen for you in this last challenging month.  Let’s talk…."

Cynthia Davis, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist