“Something very bad and very sad happened, but you’re safe.”
That was the message that grief counselors delivered to children at McGuagh Elementary School this week after the Salon Meritage shooting. The little boy whose father allegedly killed his mother and seven others attended second-grade at the school. For most of the children, the tragedy is their first experience with death, and grief counselors treated dozens of children at the school in the two days after the massacre, said McGaugh Principal Bill MacDonald.
By the next morning, most students knew about the tragedy, even some of the youngest had seen the news footage. Some of the students had been in the McDonald's and Taco Bell restaurants in the same shopping center as the shooting when it happened, said MacDonald. Others live close to the salon and were scared, he said.
Within 24 hours, Lisa and Ryan Elder noticed worrisome changes in their little boy, a third-grader, whose friend lost his mother in the shooting.
“For the last 24 hours, he follows me if I leave the room,” Elder said. “It’s out of control. He just kept asking me, “Why? Why, mom?” That part was tough.”
Ryan Elder, said he worries about the long-term impact the exposure to violence and tragedy could have on his son. Will he be fearful? Paranoid? Angry?
Parents should be prepared for children to be out of sorts over the next couple weeks, said Tina Rocha, a crisis response specialist from the Orange County Department of Education, who counseled children at McGaugh following the tragedy. If symptoms persist after that, it’s time to see a counselor, she said.
"I’ve talked to people who worked with the suspect, or knew the victim or were a neighbor. There were so many people who were connected to those people and knew them,” added MacDonald. “There are a lot of people directly impacted, and almost every single student at my school was affected.”
Additionally there are children at Oak Middle School and Los Alamitos High School who lost their mothers in the attack.
Symptoms of Stress Reactions:
Pres-school and Kindergarteners
- Thematic play
- Anxious attachment
- Regression, such as bed-wetting
Elementary School Age
- Performance decline
- Unexpected moods
- Behavior changes/problems
- Psychosomatic complaints such as headaches and upset stomachs
Junior and High School Age
- Acting out
- Low self-esteem and self-criticism
- Becoming “too old, too fast”
- Displaced anger
- Pre-occupation with self
All of these stress reactions are normal, said Rocha. Parents should reduce their performance expectations, maintain routines, and encourage their children to exercise and do things that feel good, talk about their feelings, eat well, and reassure their children that they are safe.
When it comes to vigils and memorial services, “focus on the celebration of life,” Rocha said. “We don’t want them to hyper-focus on the tragedy.”
Most importantly, parents should protect their children from re-exposure to the tragedy, such as news footage from the shooting. They should spend time with their children and talk to them about the tragedy in an age-appropriate way while refraining from details of the shooting. Give children space to grieve in their own way because they may not have the words to explain how they are feeling. If they want to attend vigils, prayer services or memorials, allow them to, but never force them to do so if they are uncomfortable, added Rocha.
“I am sorry this has occurred. We know you are a family here,” Rocha told an assembly of parents at McGaugh Elementary. “Your children are needing you now.”
“Kids have a shorter memory us,” added MacDonald. The school is working to assure kids that things will eventually go back to normal.
“I told them that things will go back to normal, but it might take a few weeks,” said MacDonald. “One kid asked me, ‘That would be by Halloween, right?’ ”