Psychologist Discusses Proper Handling Of Alarming Events; Understanding Individual Variability Key

Psychologist Discusses Proper Handling Of Alarming Events; Understanding Individual Variability Key
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BERLIN — The fear and concern created by the unfounded bomb threats that have disrupted local schools in the past two weeks has been stressful for some parents and their young students. Yet, somewhere in all of that disruption and uncertainty is an opportunity for parents and their children to have a real conversation about recent events in order to not only talk about their feelings or fears, but to more importantly decipher fact from fiction and understand the importance of labeling each of those things clearly.

This week, The Dispatch sat down with Dr. Jennifer Leggour, who is a clinical psychologist and the clinical director at Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services. She says that while kids today are much tougher than we think, parents still need to stay calm and listen intently to what they have to say during and after scary situations.

Here’s a look at what we discussed on Wednesday, the day after the most recent bomb threat at Stephen Decatur High School.

Q: Have you received a direct uptick in calls since these bomb threats have been coming in?

A: Not necessarily in calls but with follow up appointments with our typical clients. They have definitely been coming in and talking about this situation as an additional stresser to what they’ve already been dealing with. So we’ve been helping children and families at that level. There’s been a heightened concern from the people who are already here.

Q: How has your team of counselors been helping people through this most recent or immediate stress while they work through their existing stress?

A: A lot of our current clients have been here learning coping tools and we try to pull on their strengths in what they’ve already learned and apply them to this situation. However, I think this situation is unique and it doesn’t happen very often, if ever, and it’s been very alarming. So, we’ve had to help children and families on a couple of different levels.

The first level is the possibility of true trauma or true danger. I think one of the things that is happening is that for children and families, their core beliefs about the world and the safety in the world, they shift when there is a threat like this. Suddenly, the world is not such a safe place, and it’s a potentially dangerous place. So, we’ve been dealing with a lot of panic symptoms and trying to work with families in terms of dangerousness and how they handle that. How has their world belief changed? How has their feeling of comfort and safety on the Eastern Shore changed with these threats?

Then, there’s the day-to-day stressers, you know, the schedules that are disrupted and the frustration that is there. Every time a child goes back to school they are worried that their schedule will be disrupted. There are a lot of additional worries that are there and parents need to help prepare kids for ‘okay, if you have a bomb threat today, you’ll need to have these things with you.’ So, it’s on a couple different levels.

Q: Do you find that you are dealing more with the actual disruption that these situations are causing rather than the fear of the unknown of a traumatic or emergency situation actually being real?

A: I would say it’s equal. It’s about 50-50. I think parents are more concerned with the danger aspect: ‘what if this was real?’, ‘what if something bad happens?’ and the kids are much worried about the logistics: ‘I don’t want to forget my books’ or ‘there’s state testing going on’. So, parents are thinking in one direction and kids are thinking in another.

Q: Is there a certain age demographic that is more impacted by these situations or is it not the children altogether and instead it’s the parents who are most effected?

A: I think it depends on the person. I have seen little kids who have handled it really well and others are crying. Some parents are very calm and rational while others are screaming, crying and running into the school and saying ‘I’m homeschooling my child for the rest of the year.’

Older kids tend to fluctuate as well. Some seem to think that this is just a hoax and are desensitized to it and that it’s no big deal, and others are a bit more scared and aware of the realities and are more anxious about it. So there’s that individual variability.

Q: How can parents, regardless of where they are on the spectrum — whether they are calm, cool and collected or if they are legitimately scared of what has been occurring — how do we use this as a teaching moment?

A: First and foremost, we are role models to our children. We have to be in check with our feelings and our thoughts about it. We have to address kids knowing that we have to be calm, cool and collected and be there for them. So, in that teaching moment, we are modeling the appropriate behavior and we are also listening, attending to all their fears, and we are addressing a safety issue that unfortunately, we never thought that we would have to address, and the state of the world.

So we use that as an opportunity to say, ‘you know, the world is an unsafe place sometimes, but I care about you and I love you and all of your teachers and staff at school are working together to make sure that you are safe.’ So, it’s about keeping your own feelings in check, modeling the behavior, listening and establishing a safety plan and network so kids can know that while terrible things can happen that are out of our control, we are always in control of our reaction.

Q: Most likely there is a common sense approach to this and of course, parents know their kids better than anyone else, and know what a kid’s maturity level can handle, but on average, how much “real talk” can you have with these kids at the different age levels. How honest should parents be about the realities of the situation?

A: Kids respond well to facts. Obviously, teenagers are going to have access to electronic media and be much more aware of the details and the ramifications and what’s going on than say a 6 year old. With a 6 (year old), I would have a much more basic conversation and say something like, ‘someone is trying to hurt the school. We don’t know who it is and we don’t know why but what I do know is that you will be safe and there is a safety plan in place so you don’t have to worry.’

With the teenager, they may have a lot more questions and at the end of the day you can have a lot more of an intellectual discussion with older kids.

Q: How important in that discussion, regardless of the age range, is allowing facts to drive the conversation rather than fear?

A: There has to be a balance. You can express your feelings and say, ‘wow, I’m really scared’ but then looking at the situation, this is what we know, this is what is happening, and this is what we are doing to try and keep everyone safe.

If one takes over, then you aren’t in a good place. If the fear takes over, you are living in fear and you are anxious. If you are completely factual, you aren’t paying attention to how you are really feeling and responding, so a nice mixture of both is really the way to go.

Q: Let’s talk more philosophical for a minute because what kids are exposed to these days is vastly different than what we were when we were kids. What they have access to, as far as information, visuals and even games, is much more intense and intensive than what we had growing up. So, are kids today more callous or perhaps desensitized?

A: I think to a certain extent they are more desensitized. Looking back, you didn’t really hear about acts of violence against a school or acts of terrorism. With the newer generations, there’s Columbine and Sandy Hook, and 9/11 and so their world view is a little bit different and yes, bad things happen in the world, and when I grew up, they didn’t occur.

Q: Do you think this situation is all that more shocking because of where we live?

A: Yes. I grew up here and I love the Eastern Shore. I lived in the city for a long time, but I wanted to come back. I think here, there’s that culture and that philosophy that we are this peaceful little beach town or farm town and stuff like this happens in the big city, or across the bridge. So it really shakes us up whenever there is something traumatic or dangerous that comes up because, really, that’s one of the reasons why we live here. It’s peaceful and there’s a strong sense of community.

Q: I’ve heard parents in recent days articulate that their kids are having nightmares, they are worried, are anxious, and loud noises are scaring them in the school. With everything that we talked about, Sandyhook and Columbine and this post-9/11 world that we live in, how can we make the school environment a safe and more fruitful environment and how do we help kids work through those stresses and anxieties that exist?

A: I think here, in this situation, one of the things that are making children and adults so anxious is that we don’t know what’s going on. I think once we know, and there’s an answer, we’ll be able to say ‘this chapter is closed, we can get back to normal.’ But we don’t know, and things keep happening, and I think because of that, it makes the situation very difficult.

Q: Do you think that in the age of information, where you don’t have to really wait for anything and you can get anything with the press of a button or the tap of a screen, when you don’t know the answer to something does that allow fear to just sort of build upon itself?

A: It creates a lot of what I call ‘What if-ing’. Fear of the unknown leaves a lot of space for questioning, and typically when we ‘what if’ it’s in a scary direction. I try to tell parents and kids to avoid the ‘what if-ing’ game. We don’t know what’s going on, we can’t predict the future because we don’t have a crystal ball. If ‘what if-ing is making you feel worse, then try not to do it.

There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness in today’s world and you strive to have a balance between the rational mind, the emotional mind, and have a wise mind. So, every fear that you have, every thought that you have, you have to think about it, and do your best to be as analytical and realistic and honest as you can with yourself.

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.