Helping Kids Move Beyond Tragedy

By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

Helping Kids Move Beyond TragedyIt doesn’t seem to matter how much time passes. We often can remember, as if it were yesterday, how we felt as we watched horrific events unfold, like the school massacre at Columbine, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or the tsunami in Japan in 2011. The haunting images of people in peril that we see over and over again in the media draw us in from near and far and make it personal. Since we can’t unsee what we’ve seen, tragedy, in turn, becomes part of our story. Hearts broken, lives lost, dreams shattered.

It has been eighteen years since those devastating, chaotic scenes from Columbine High School flashed across the television screen in my living room as I held my newborn son in my arms. I was on maternity leave, worried about his future in a violent world. In our own backyard, we often hear about road rage, domestic violence, or car accidents. I can personally still see, smell, and feel being hit head-on by a drunk driver four years ago. It’s as if time is standing still, even though time doesn’t stop. It marches onward, and we must move forward with it. Every second. Every step. But how?

Try these strategies to help yourself and the kids in your care get from a place of violence, vicarious or personal, to a place of restoration and recovery.

Talk and listen.
I once heard the late Stephen Covey say something like this: Being understood is to the heart what water is to the body. With the average human body consisting of over 55 percent water, that’s a lot of listening to be had if we are to be wholly understood.

Violent acts or events can leave us paralyzed and unable to process our uncomfortable and difficult feelings by ourselves. There is no shame in admitting that you’ve been through a devastatingly difficult and dark event and that you want (and need) help to get from where you’ve been to where you’re headed. Seek out a trusted person who will listen, then give yourself permission to emote like crazy. Don’t hold back. Cry. Scream. Be angry. With words or pictures, describe in detail what you witnessed, what you thought, what you heard, what you smelled, and how you felt. Pay attention to disturbances in eating and sleeping patterns and other daily habits and routines. Accept them, own them, and share them.

When you’re ready, reframe your thoughts about your feelings from something that is happening to you to something that is happening in you. Positively reframing your thoughts can work wonders to help unlock errant feelings about the event and get you started on your new path.

Become helpers.
Television legend Fred Rogers said that when he was a child and would experience scary things, his mother would tell him: Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. Taking that idea a step further, Sheila Sjolseth, founder and president of the nonprofit organization Pennies of Time, asks: What if we empower families and children to become compassionate problem solvers and be the helpers?

I think she’s on to something, and her question reminds me of when Michael, a wide-eyed first grader, stopped by my office the day after a tsunami decimated parts of Japan. The raspy quality of his voice, along with the urgency of his earnest request, still echo in my heart all these years later: Mrs. Gruener, you know those poor people who were hurt by that killer wave? We’re going to help them, aren’t we? I wasn’t sure that we were, but Michael had a recovery plan that sold me: If every child could do a chore to earn just one dollar, we could donate nearly $800. And so began our student-initiated project that this little superhero called the “100 Cents for Tsunami Survivors Campaign.” From that little splash came a tidal wave of support and love. A third-grade boy emptied his wallet to help. A first-grade girl donated all of the money she’d earned from getting good grades on her report card. A kindergarten boy and his third-grade sister baked cookies with their mom, sold the treats, and donated the profits. A second-grade boy and his friends raised money by selling lemonade on the corner. These incredible helpers ended up sending $1,500 to UNICEF’s relief efforts.

Need something to take your mind off of scary stuff? Find a project with a purpose and let its momentum bathe you in hope and healing.

Use therapeutic resources.
After experiencing a trauma, it’s important to find resources that fit who you are and what you need to make a healthy recovery. Maybe it’s a mindfulness practice—like yoga, guided imagery, calming coloring, or meditation—that keeps you in the moment and stops your heart and mind from going back to the scene of the crisis. Perhaps a circular stroll, a brisk walk, or a swim would provide some much-needed therapeutic restoration. Take a long bike ride or participate in some other vigorous exercise to work out those feelings of anger, frustration, and irritability that might be surfacing. If it’s physical discomfort that you’re feeling, a trip to a physical therapist, massage therapist, or chiropractor might provide the greatest relief. Don’t forget that comfort food also may serve as a therapeutic resource with the caveat that you’re able to moderate your intake and not overindulge. Sometimes going back to a time and place where you felt safe and secure, valued and valuable, like in Grandma’s kitchen, for example, has just the right ingredients for your personal recovery recipe.

Reading is another therapeutic resource; there are myriad picture books that can help foster resilience. One of my favorites to use with children of all ages is A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes. In this social story, Sherman Smith feels afraid because of something he saw. Since we never really know what Sherman saw, readers can easily transfer what’s happening to Sherman to their own stories. And finally, time can be a powerful therapeutic resource. Allow yourself an adequate amount to adapt to your new normal.

If you or someone you know has experienced something terrible and strong feelings of distress, irritability, helplessness, anger, fear, panic, anxiety, hypervigilance, or loss persist and overwhelm, the suggestions above may not provide the relief that’s needed. Remember, there is always help available and there is always hope for healing. Call a hotline, find a crisis center, start seeing a trauma therapist, or go to an emergency room physician to get the appropriate medical attention and care.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 33rd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.


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6 Responses to Helping Kids Move Beyond Tragedy

  1. You are an unstoppable force of good, Barbara! Compassion mixed with sage advice delivered in an easily digestible manner! Love this!

    ~Wendy

  2. Barbara, I love your wisdom and compassion. It’s a powerful duo and this is a powerful piece. Keep on helping children. Mr. Rogers would say, “Look for the helpers”– I say look to Barbara Gruener. XX Michele Borba

  3. Tanya says:

    Barbara – I appreciate your article. I especially like the part about moving from what happened “to” you to what is happening “within” you…it’s as if it returns a sense of control when it feels as if there is none.

    • I’m glad this post resonated with you, Tanya. I love the connection you made between regaining control and empowerment. It’s such an awesome privilege to equip our students and help them grow from the inside out, isn’t it?

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