Blog Postpost

Posted Thursday February, 23rd 2023

My experience working with Children Impacted by Mass Shootings

Six months after the Highland Park parade tragedy, the reverberations have continued for many families, and especially for a particular family that came to see me at a crucial moment in their healing process. They came to me when their 9 year old son Ethan became fearful of loud noises and sirens from ambulances and firetrucks after he experienced the Highland Park shootings.

His family noticed his new fearfulness and aversion to loud noises, and responded by looking for a therapist right away. I feel lucky to have had the privilege of working with them as they started to heal from this tragedy. When I started working with them, we used a combo of EMDR and attachment based play. Ethan and his dad both attended each session, and we worked together on overcoming the challenges Ethan was facing as a result of his experience.

As we met each week, I asked Ethan to draw pictures of memories of different things that made him feel stressed; things like his memories of the parade and also other things, including a fire drill at school that upset him. I asked him to draw pictures of images that came to his mind, almost like a cartoon. After each drawing, his father provided bi-lateral stimulation (a core feature of EMDR therapy), which, in Ethan’s case, was alternately tapping on Ethan’s knees or alternatively squeezing Ethan’s hand or foot (depending on Ethan’s preference that week). We counted rhythmically for approximately 20 seconds. I then asked Ethan what else was coming to mind for him. He drew before pictures and after pictures, and we talked about what he was showing in each image.The bi-lateral stimulation provided in EMDR therapy is believed to help integrate traumatic memories in the brain that cause behavioral disturbances. I believe that breaking down the experiences into smaller parts, with time in between to digest the thoughts and images, also helped Ethan feel less frightened by the memories.

An important element in the trauma healing work was having Ethan’s dad involved. I had three individual sessions to explain the process, answer the dad’s questions and hear about his experience of the events. By participating, Ethan’s father also vicariously improved as he supported his son. Together they played and connected through fun activities before and after Ethan created drawings of his memories.

Another important aspect of the therapy involved play. We spent time playing out rescue scenarios where the child acted as a helper. I placed stuffed animals all over the room. His dad sat on the couch and I acted as the fire truck and zoomed around the room while the child brought each animal to safety and took care of them. Ethan wanted to keep replaying this over repeated sessions.

As we continued to work for several weeks, the child’s symptoms were relieved, even to the point that he was able to help another younger student at school through words of reassurance and by teaching him to cover his ears or stomp his feet when he felt scared, a technique I taught him when he was in a situation that made him fearful.

His treatment lasted 10 sessions. At the end of the 10 sessions, Ethan no longer avoided loud sounds. In fact, Ethan had started playing trombone but refused to go to band practice because the drums behind him were too loud, but after the therapy, Ethan rejoined the band!

My takeaway from the experience of working with this child and his father is that I feel privileged to have the opportunity to see someone else's process of healing. It was amazing to see a family that was resourceful enough to reach out 7 weeks after the tragedy happened. They noticed that their child needed help and didn’t waste any time to help him early on, rather than waiting for symptoms to worsen. They were able to make time to take their child to therapy.

As we know, not everyone has the ability to make this time. Because this family already had a good attachment, there was a platform for security. The child was able to switch from being fearful to being a helper very quickly. Having his father there allowed the child to heal much more quickly, and this speaks to the importance of attachment. When we are lucky enough to have people to harbor us and make us feel safe, we are able to recover from trauma more quickly.

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