WARREN, Pa. – Two Warren County School District students completed suicide this week.
In the wake of the trauma, as grief settles in, Executive Director and Forensic Interviewer for the Warren County Childrens’ Advocacy Center Melissa McLean said that, while she’s not a therapist and her agency isn’t a traditional provider of mental health services, her agency does “deal with trauma every day.”
Trauma, she said, often goes hand in hand with grief and “affects everyone different.”
Trauma is explained by the American Psychological Association as an emotional response to a terrible event. Whether that terrible event is something like abuse or neglect, which is what brings families to the CAC, or the unexpected death of a friend, terrible events cause emotional responses, and those responses can be unexpected, and intimidating for parents to address with their children.
Helping children work through trauma isn’t easy, McLean said, because it’s never easy for a parent to see their child hurting. But knowing your child, and knowing how and when to make sure they know you’re available to them if they need you, is important.
“What we tell parents,” at the CAC, McLean said, is that “though we want someone to tell us what our child is going to feel, what their behaviors are going to look like, that manual none of us gets when we become a parent.”
In the face of such uncertainty, McLean said, parents can find themselves wanting to search the internet for advice or insights and that, she said, can be the least helpful thing to do.
Rather, she said, she refers parents wondering how to talk to and assess their children for traumatic responses to life events to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s resource page for evidence-based guidance from pediatric mental health professionals.
Those resources, she said, “are things we use in our daily work with victims of child abuse, and helping parents navigate that.”
There’s an entire section of resources focused just on helping children navigate traumatic grief.
Parents wondering whether their child is okay or not should compare their current behavior to their baseline behavior.
“If you’ve got a chatty kid who’s not talking to you that much,” said McLean, “then it’s probably time to just check in with them a little bit.”
If your child is naturally quiet, and only comes to you when they really need to, preferring to process things like grief and trauma on their own, it’s okay to give them the space to do that too.
“Being up front with each other,” said McLean, is ultimately the most important thing. Rather than reacting, out of a perceived pressure to know what to say to children working through grief or trauma, McLean said it’s more helpful for parents to be honest when they don’t know what to say, or how to answer their child’s questions.
“Every child, every adult, every family is going to respond to trauma completely differently,” she said. “And all those responses are completely normal.”
McLean said that if children come to parents or other trusted adults over the course of the next several weeks or months to disclose that they’re struggling, “it means that they trust you first of all,” but also that “all they really want is for you to listen to them.”
While parents and other adults may feel pressure to “help” their children and teens through trauma, “it’s valid to say to kids I don’t know those answers, but I love you, and we’ll get through this together.”
“Warren is such a great community,” McLean said. “This has sent shockwaves through the whole community, even if you don’t know anything about it, a whole segment of your community is grieving and that’s really hard.”
For parents, she said, “there’s an added layer” to that reality.
And, McLean said, it’s important for those who know mental health workers, school staff or administrators, parents, and even law enforcement or emergency response personnel to “check in on their helpers.”
After nearly two straight years of living the pandemic life, McLean said, “everyone is so fatigued anyway. Secondary trauma (that trauma experienced by police, EMS workers, teachers, pastors, nurses, doctors, counselors, and others helping kids and families cope right now) is a real thing.”
Warren Area School District Superintendent Amy Stewart provided parents with a letter Thursday, detailing what support services are available to parents and families in the wake of the week’s deaths outside of school, where she wrote, “we have focused on providing support and resources” for students.
Stewart advised parents in her letter – echoing the message shared by McLean – that “these events may provide a good opportunity” for parents to have “some difficult, but important, conversations” with their children.
Ronna Tipton, Director of Forest-Warren Human Services, said that a new crisis hotline is also available to students or parents. The number for that hotline, staffed by the Center for Community Resources, is (844) 757-3224 (REACH).