Kids and Trauma after Jersey City attack

I’ve lived in Jersey City for 6 years. At that same time, in my professional life, I’ve been developed a resource list of helping children cope with trauma, whether that be from violence or natural disasters. It breaks my heart that, today, these resources are what we need in the place I call home. Sharing this as a public post on Facebook in case you know a family who can benefit and sharing here as well.

(Let me note – I am a public policy researcher, focused primarily on children up to age 8. I am not a mental health clinician myself, and my child is not quite 3, so I can’t claim to have “tested” many of these strategies. By job is to read the research and understand what resources are out there – I hope this is helpful as many of us as parents today feel we are out here without a net. Also, our whole city was victimized yesterday with this mass violence – but let us particularly remember that residents of Greenville are often overlooked, talked-over, and written off as a “problem” neighbor. A mass shooting, deservedly, jars us and horrifies us. But there are families in Jersey City facing wanton violence every day. I’d like to get into this further in another post but for, it is essential to recognize that wherever you live, it is okay to struggle today – but that others closer to the scene has a different experience).

First, recognize that you are processing the trauma of yesterday’s violence as a person and as a parent. You are scared, angry, and hurt. You are responding both to the violence of yesterday and the stress of media response and to whatever your feelings are on our local and national politics.  Then you realize you have this PERSON you have to care for, whether they are old enough to realize what is going on and are scared, or whether they thought yesterday’s lockdown at school was just a new “quiet game” (and let’s talk another time about the AMAZING educator and care professionals yesterday who protected our kids at an unimaginable time). JCPS is working to provide mental health resources in the schools – no details yet – but kids need support at home too.

Kids pick up on our stress and emotions, even if they aren’t sure what’s going on – but that also doesn’t mean we should try to hide it all away either. We can admit our own fear and anger while reassuring them about the people who are here to keep them safe. Here are some major takeaways from the research – links at the bottom that you might also find helpful.

And, as always, let’s take some good advice from Mr. Rogers. I’ll share any opportunities for community engagement as we hear more.

mr rogers

How do you handle yesterday, today?

  • Let your kid take the lead. So, your kid is old enough to know something is up. Most children will not benefit from the whole story (and we don’t know it all yet!). You know your kid best so gauge what they can handle – but when it comes to uncomfortable parenting conversations, from shootings to sex, some of the best advice is ASK YOUR KID WHAT THEY ALREADY KNOW. This gives you a chance to stall for time, gauge their baseline knowledge and – essentially – correct for any misconceptions. If kids were getting their news via rumors yesterday on lockdown, there might be some things that need to be corrected. Have this conversation today, tomorrow, and all week – because your child might not have heard anything from YOU, but they will hear snippets of conversation on the trip to school, from their peers, and in the grocery store with you. Kids hear pieces of information and squirrel them away, trying to make sense of them – make it clear YOU are there to help them do so.
  • Be careful about media consumption. From wanting to check our phones constantly for updates to the fact that this is now national news, there’s a lot of media coverage. But PBS Kids reminds us that keeping constantly engaged in this can make us feel more hopeless, so try to set up some rules for yourself on when you can and can’t check, and stick to them (it’s hard! I know!).

    Avoid watching TV coverage of the story with the kids in the room. From PBS: “The same video segment may be shown over and over again through the day, as if each showing was a different event….Children often become very anxious since they don’t understand much about videotape replays, closeups, and camera angles….
    The younger the children are, the more likely they are to be interested in scenes of close-up faces, particularly if the people are expressing some strong feelings. When there’s tragic news, the images on TV are most often much too graphic and disturbing for young children.”

    In general, any TV coverage of a disaster can make it feel “too close to home” for kids because it’s in their living room, and they can’t gauge how far away. Today, this is LITERALLY too close to home. Be sure that as kids know this happened in Jersey City, they understand danger is not lurking around every cover. You don’t want to “other” the neighborhood where it happened (“Don’t worry, sweetie, that’s all the way across town”) because we are still all in this together, but do reassure that the terrible danger has ended and we feel safe in our community. (If you DON’T feel safe and that’s showing – think of some ways you can make it better. Is it location sharing from your phone with a friend or partner for a bit? Is it meeting up with another family for the walk to school?)

    For older kids with their own access to media, this is HARD. Sit down and talk with your teen and tween – acknowledge that you understand why they want to keep up with this news story, and that you do too, but that early in an investigation, a lot of misinformation comes out. Treat them, as much as you can, like an adult – ask them what they are hearing, offer to look into any questions. If it feels right, set some limits – but be careful here. Students were on lockdown for several hours yesterday, a unique experience that we are their parents don’t have (and are horrified by). They may feel they truly need to connect with their peers right now. The goal isn’t to get them off Snapchat for fear of them seeing crazy rumors, but to make sure they are talking to you about what they are hearing and seeing.

 

  • TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. The old “you can’t pour from an empty cup” metaphor applies here. Acknowledge to your child that you are sad and upset – and then reaffirm for them the people who are there to take care of them. For many of us who are caregivers, it is natural to think we have to swallow down the bad feelings and put on a brave face – but if you don’t take the time to process your emotions (with yourself, a partner, a friend, or a professional), you’re going to wear yourself out and be less able to provide as a caregiver.

    This is a national news story. Consider whether asking your boss to leave early is an option if you will feel better by being there for school pickup. Acknowledge to your coworker’s that this happened and you are having a hard day. Tell someone you are NOT up for talking about it, if you’re not – people outside our community may be trying to express support for you by reflecting on what they have heard on the news but a simple “Thanks so much for your concern. This has been NONSTOP at home and I could really use a break from talking about it” is a valid response.

Resources:

 

Matthew Bierman Scholarship Fund

Matthew Bierman Scholarship

Along with several other members of the Class of 2005, I was honored to help launch the Matthew Bierman Memorial Scholarship at the Union County Magnet High School. Matt was a wonderful friend and classmate who passed away too soon in 2016. We wanted to honor Matt’s memory and the impact he made on our day-to-day lives throughout our four years together.

The award recipient is a graduating senior nominated by teachers who embodies the values of kindness, dedication, and intellect demonstrated by Matt Bierman. The first award will be given this June to a member of the Class of 2019, selected by a review committee of Matt’s classmates, family, and friends.

We have already funded the first two years of operations of the scholarship – to help us support year three and beyond, donate here via the Magnet Parent School Association, a 501c3.

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On a personal note – Matt was my “locker neighbor” for four years. We shared a prom limo. He made sure I didn’t actually fail tech class that year we were drafting house blueprints. He was a wonderful guy and important part of my Magnet experience. I’m honored we can create this tribute.

How Can We Celebrate (and Support) Grandparents?

Today’s Grandparent’s Day – a day which, believe it or not, did not just start as a Hallmark card holiday but actually has real roots in valuing the role grandparents play for children.

I wrote about this last year for at my organization’s blog, and it’s a huge piece of the

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GaGa/Kieran bonding on board an Irish tour boat

work I am doing around extended family engagement – grandparents (and step-grandparents, and honorary grandparents) are among the most widely acknowledged family members playing a role in children’s lives.

It’s also a role I think about every day, as grandparents on mine and my husband’s side make our daily life with K possible – and it’s an absolute treasure to watch K develop a loving relationship.

You can read more on grandparent’s as a policy issue here:

 

We can work to embrace two-generation strategies in our programs for families – and then push further to ask how we can make these three- and four-generation strategies, as Senior ICS Fellow Janice Gruendel did in a recent presentation on opportunities for extended family involvement in evidence-based home-visiting models.

We can learn more about opportunities to fully include “grandfamilies” in our safety net programs, as highlighted by Generations United.

We can continue working to improve access to early care and education programs, so families have more quality choices for young children, which can complement nurturing care from grandparents.

We can continue to support research and resources to ensure quality of life for seniors and foster healthy intergenerational relationships.

 

August Newsletter: Lessons from the animal kingdom, and stealing advice from “Parents”

Each month, I share what I am learning and writing about the importance of extended family in US social policy and – when I can – add some cute animal pics and pop culture references. Reach out by email or follow me on Twitter. If you enjoyed this newsletter, subscribe here!

Here comes Peter Cotton-Top Tamarin…

I recently had a high school friend visiting, which is a great excuse to be a tourist in your area. We had the chance to check out Liberty Science Center, a fantastic interactive experience in Jersey City. While I’ve been there on a handful of trips when I was younger, it was my first time going with our toddler in tow. We got there just in time to watch the staff feed what we thought were monkeys – but were actual cotton-top tamarins.

If you start reading up on extended families in the animal kingdom (what, you haven’t?), it doesn’t take long to learn cotton-top tamarins are kind of a big deal. Eminent anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes in her riveting book Mothers and Others that while many species collaborate to raise young, tamarins are among the very few species – along with humans – that she defines as “full-fledged cooperative breeders.” Elsewhere, she explains that when female tamarins give birth – a task generally done by just one or two dominant females – help is not far behind:

“Fathers and alloparents of both sexes are unusually eager to help mothers rear their young. Babies are carried throughout most of the day by one or more adult males, which expend so much energy doing so that they actually lose weight. Other helpers, typically but not exclusively kin, voluntarily deliver even prized animal prey to youngsters.”

These alloparents – kin and other tribe members who are  not the biological parents – step in to lighten the  load, to the well-being of the whole tribe. Blaffer Hrdy notes that “immature” – or, pre-reproductive – females often play the role of eager alloparent, which helps improve their own fitness for reproduction down the line, though they are “concerned lest their charge’s cries attract a competing allomother.” I always get a laugh out of that image – a very scientific way of summing up that younger cousin every family has who is unboundedly excited to help out with a new baby, and hesitant to share them with anyone else.

Tamarins are just one of the fascinating species I’ve learned about as I’ve dove into the alloparenting research, and I’ll share more soon. In the meantime, I definitely encourage you to visit some in person or at least bookmark these images if you’re having a bad day.


Impostor syndrome? Fight it by focusing on someone else

I was quoted in a piece on Hello Giggles where professional women shared their moments of breaking through “impostor syndrome,” where I reflected on how growing into the role of mentor helped reshape my view on my own development:

“When I started shifting from being the one asking for letters of recommendation and connections to getting to play that role of connector for other talented early career professionals, I started seeing my status in a new light. No one tells you that you have become a mentor—I sure didn’t tell my mentor when I picked her, it just naturally happened.”

I felt like an impostor even responding to this reporter’s query, which sort of shows you how deep this all goes. Fighting my own “impostor syndrome” as I shift from an early career professional to a leadership and management role has been tough – plus the shifting dynamics of my own ego and my changing work-life balance as I parent. I firmly believe mentoring – having a mentor yourself, mentoring others, and creating a climate for success – is key. I went a bit deeper on this on my blog, drawing inspiration from both writer Ann Friedman and soccer star Abby Wambach.


Fostering learning, for Parents and other adults
I also had the pleasure of being a contributor to the “Ages & Stages” section of this month’s Parents magazine, on ways to foster early literacy, math, and social-emotional development. Talk about impostor syndrome on this one! I was delighted to find out this piece would be not only online, but also in print. This is Parents! Every pediatrician I know has it in their office! And now that I’ve seen the other contributors – including Roberta Golinkoff, whose work I’ve long admired – I’m even more excited to have my voice represented.

While the publication is obviously geared towards parents, I feel strongly that the guidance works for any adult in a child’s life. I almost wish we could reprint the article in something called Aunts and Uncles and Godparents Too! – lots of parents already get great advice on how to incorporate learning and skill development into their home life, but many other adults who are deeply invested in children they love lack guidance on making the most of their role.

You can snag a copy of the Back to School issue for this and other great articles on Amazon.


The Whole Tree: Extended Families in Education
It’s almost here! I’m heading down to Florida in a few weeks to present on extended family engagement in education, which has been a key area of my research in the last few months. I’ll share the slides when I’m all done, but here’s the key takeaway: family engagement has increasingly become a priority in schools, but most state and local education agencies continue to gear their engagement around nuclear families – and that’s not a model that works for families today. Empowering extended family members, who are already deeply invested in a child, can improve child outcomes, but schools need examples of how to do this in a realistic way. I won’t have all the answers at this conference – but am looking forward to starting the conversation with practitioners to better understand their experience, and helping to shape a new model.