Traumas often trigger persistent and debilitating anxieties. The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Connecticut in December of 2012 is no exception, with fears and anxieties among children and parents from the area and throughout the country likely to surface and linger.

Already faced with a host of emotions, including shock, anger and sadness, surviving children and their parents may develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Many Americans are familiar with the term after more than a decade of foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Soldiers experiencing harrowing and violent events have often returned with “invisible wounds" as they struggle to resume normal life. Characterized by nightmares, emotional distress, isolation, avoidance, decreased interest in routine activities, irritability, angry outbursts, and difficulty concentrating, PTSD is an anxiety disorder triggered by trauma.

Whether having experienced the trauma oneself or witnessing another's life being threatened, one can develop PTSD immediately following a traumatic experience or years later. Typical events that often lead to PTSD include rape, abuse, accidents, combat, and natural and man-made disasters.

Locally and throughout the nation, parents and children may be experiencing debilitating fears of recurrence. Many are also forced to accept the reality that they have little control in the outside world. Such fears can lead to avoidance of public places and social isolation. The anxiety can also interfere with daily life, making routine activities impossible.

Separation Anxiety

The tragedy may have also shaken the confidence of the many of the youngest students, with the potential for the onset of separation anxiety elevated.

Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for toddlers, but when it arises in older children it is generally due to stress. Marked by regression and a fear of separation from one's primary caretaker, children with separation anxiety do not feel secure, may refuse to attend school, may complain of physical ailments, and may have nightmares.

With the media deeply entrenched in Newtown, the entire country is focusing on the tragedy and continually being reminded of the horror and danger of living in a free world. Such constant exposure, however, may inadvertently be increasing people's fears.

What Can Be Done?

In Newtown and in schools across the country, security has been heightened as children are being encouraged to return to school.

"They are really on top of security," said Neil Walsh, whose three students attend Connecticut schools. "As a parent, after the horrible incident, you are always on edge, but we have a very strong community and strong leaders."

A return to normalcy is also urged, with psychologists noting that resuming daily routines helps people feel safer and more secure about their lives. Experts are also encouraging people to talk about their emotions.

"Give yourself permission to express your feelings. Talk to a friend or family," said grief counselor Aurora Winters in an interview with a local CBS station.

Children of all ages and parents need assurance, support and time to heal. If anxieties persist, professional counseling with or without medication may be warranted.

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Michele Rosenthal
Michele Rosenthal
Michele Rosenthal
Eugene G. Lipov, M.D.


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