When talking to kids about tragedy, frank conversations can be healthy

When talking to kids about tragedy, frank conversations can be healthy »Play Video
Flowers and stuffed animals of a makeshift memorial for school shooting victims encircle the flagpole at the town center in Newtown, Conn., Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012. The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school elicited horror and soul-searching around the world even as it raised more basic questions about why the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, would have been driven to such a crime and how he chose his victims. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Horrific acts like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School or the random shooting at Clackamas Town Center are often talked about in hushed tones around children. For many, it might seem like the right way to deal with such a traumatizing subject.

After all, who wouldn’t want to protect innocent children from the news of something so horrible?

Even though the conversations are difficult, a Portland-based expert who deals with children exposed to trauma says being quiet is one of the worst ways to deal with these events.

Dr. Donna Shuurman began working with traumatized children in 1979 helping heal the deep wounds to the hearts, minds and souls of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees.

She knows the signs of kids suffering post-trauma.

“If you see any behavior that seems to be self-harm or running away behavior,” she said. “I look for changes in behavior.”

Shuurman now works as the executive director of Portland’s Dougy Center and focuses on the healing needs of children exposed to horrible situations.

“Some families come for six months, some come literally for five or six years,” she said of her work. “We’re here to help support you in that journey.”

Shuurman is careful not to use the names of any of the notorious killers in these senseless acts. Not the Thurston High School killer, not the two Columbine shooters, not Tuesday’s mall shooter and not the latest young man who inflicted so much pain on so many people.

“They’re very troubled,” she said. “They have serious problems, but let’s not give them more credit and glorification even by using their names.”

Shuurman said survivors also don’t want to see killers get attention for doing such horrible acts.

When it comes to talking to kids about these acts, she says frank conversations are healthy.

She added that children should never feel like they’re being rushed through their grieving or that their feelings are being swept aside.

“I think we all need to find those balances of how we move on and we have to recognize, for some people, their moving on will be forever changed,” Shuurman told KATU.

Shuurman has friends and colleagues who work as grief counselors just miles away from Newtown, Conn. She said they too have been traumatized by the massacre and have reached out to their colleagues to address their own feelings.