Breaking the Silence

What we can do to help children through tragedy

By Lara Ehrlich

Pediatrician David Schonfeld says adults shouldn’t be afraid to share their emotions with children in the wake of a tragedy. Photo by Gene Smirnov

When a gunman claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, the stunned community turned to David Schonfeld for help. As the founder and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, Schonfeld (CAS’83, MED’83) has dedicated his career to helping schoolteachers and administrators support children in the wake of calamitous tragedies, from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Hurricane Katrina. A board-certified pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Drexel University College of Medicine, Schonfeld is the coauthor of The Grieving Student: A Teacher’s Guide and led the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Task Force on Terrorism.

What do you say to teachers after a traumatic event like Newtown?

First, it is important to acknowledge how difficult this was for all of them. They need to adjust their expectations, both for their students and for themselves. Another thing I go over with people in horrible situations is that guilt is so pervasive—guilt about why the tragedy occurred, guilt that you survived, guilt that you can’t help people. No matter what you do, everyone is upset and it just feels like you failed—but you are actually making a profound difference in the lives of the children and each other. It is an enormous burden to care for people when they are in distress, but it also is a privilege because you are helping them when they need it most.

You have said that adults are often reluctant to talk with children about traumatic events. Why is that, and how does their silence affect children?

I understand there is no curriculum in the textbook for this sort of event, and it is hard to bring up sensitive topics. My younger daughter was in elementary school on 9/11, and we lived within commuting distance to New York City. The school didn’t know what to do; they didn’t even tell the children that it happened. My daughter said she knew something was going on because the teachers were hugging, but they didn’t talk about it. She didn’t mention it because she didn’t want to make them uncomfortable.

The elementary school had me talk with all the teachers before classes started the next morning. They were afraid to do something that might upset parents or make matters worse. It was well intentioned, but saying nothing says a whole lot. That’s not a message we want to deliver to the kids.

What do you tell adults who are hesitant to discuss difficult subjects with children?

I often hear adults say they don’t want to talk about an event because they might upset the children. I point out, “No, you’re not making them upset; they are already thinking about it. If you ask them how they are doing and they cry, you’re not upsetting the child—you are just giving them permission to show the upset.”

The next issue is that adults will say, “But if I talk about it, I might show I’m upset.” I tell adults that you should show when something bothers you. If you get a little choked up when talking about a tragedy, that’s just showing you’re human.

Why is it important for adults to show children that we are human?

If we don’t show our distress, then how can we expect children to learn how to deal with distress? It’s useful for teachers to pause for a second and say, “I’m sorry, this is just really upsetting to me. It was hard for me to fall asleep last night, but I talked with my husband, or spent some time with my dog, or wrote in my journal.” We need to share effective coping techniques.

You have said that after a traumatic event like a school shooting, it’s important for the community to focus on healing, not fixing. Could you talk about that urge to fix?

The problem is that after something really horrific happens, people desperately try to figure out what happened and how to undo it—which of course you can’t. Or you try to convince yourself that you know exactly what to do so something like this will never happen. You say, “If we fortify the front door, then we’ll be safe.” Then you realize a child could bring a weapon to school in an instrument case, so you say, “Okay, so we don’t let them bring instruments.” But in a free society, you can’t make everything one hundred percent safe. You just have to do what is reasonable. I’m on the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, and we are making recommendations in safe school design so that we maximize safety without turning kids’ environments into fortresses that don’t allow them to be children.

How can we be prepared to support children in the event of a tragedy?

I’m involved in a project called Coalition to Support Grieving Students, which includes about a dozen professional organizations working together to develop online training materials on how to support grieving students. They will be readily available not only to everyone in those professional organizations, but to anyone. About 5 percent of US children experience the death of a parent by the time they’re 16, and 90 percent of children experience a significant death by the time they have finished high school, so we shouldn’t wait until there is a catastrophic, national-level event. Everyone who touches kids’ lives should be better prepared to help them cope.