The Littlest Witnesses: How Children Grieve

December 18, 2012
Dr. Phil is on the ground in Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of one of the most unimaginable tragedies of the last decade. He visits the home of Robert and Diane, to speak with families devastated by the senseless act that killed 20 children and seven adults in this tight-knit community. How can children process what they've been through, and how can parents help them?














Robert and DianeDr. Frank Lawlis, chairman of the Dr. Phil Advisory BoardDr. Marty Greenberg

Coping with Tragedy

Dr. Phil, Dr. Frank Lawlis, chairman of the Dr. Phil Advisory Board, and psychologist Dr. Marty Greenberg sit down with fellow parents and Newtown community members at the home of Robert and Diane, whose two children survived the massacre.

The parents tell Dr. Phil that it has been a roller coaster of emotions. “I think of the what-ifs, and I think of the parents who have kids who didn’t make it,” says a grandmother, fighting back tears.

“Every child’s experience was vastly different,” says Robert, whose 6-year-old son was at Sandy Hook when the gunfire broke out. “There was a lot of detail around a lot of what happened because of the classroom he was in, and to hear that, to hear our son speak of those moments with such detail and with such precision, as a parent, it’s hard to digest.”

Dr. Phil asks Robert and his wife, Diane, what their son is experiencing now.
“He is petrified that another gunman is going to come here for him.”

Dr. Phil offers the parents advice for helping their children through the healing process. “You can’t try to speed them at an adult level of processing this information.”

Returning to School

The parents say that their children are not ready to go back to school, and they, too, have reservations about sending their children back on campus.

Lynn, a mother whose daughter, Alexis, attends Sandy Hook, says her biggest concern is for when Alexis must return to school and the anxiety she will feel when she drops her off at school. “How do I prepare, not only myself — my husband, my family — but Alexis to say, ‘OK, it’s time to go back to school.’ How do I, as a mother, deal with that and also to make sure she feels safe when I’m driving away and she’ll still be at school?”

Dr. Phil asks Alexis, “Do you feel any fear about going back to school?”

“I might feel a little scared, because I just don’t want that to happen again,” she says. “I’m a little sad for some people who passed away.”

“Certainly for us, and I’m sure for many, it’s about making sure our children are safe and having that same sense of confidence that when we drop our kids off at school or when the bus picks them up, we’re going to see them again, and I don’t know that any of us are there yet,” Robert says. “I need to be assured that our children are safe.”

Another mother agrees that she, too, has anxiety about letting her son out of her sight.

“Our son has also mentioned that he does not want to go back to school,” Robert says.

Dr. Phil talks about why the first few days after an incident are so important for ensuring a child’s sense of safety. “I have long preached that the best way to protect our children is to self-protect.”

Dr. Phil tells the families what they can expect emotionally in the coming days and months. “There are two critical periods: the decisions you make early on and then how you live with the reality going forward."

The parents say that it’s going to be a challenging healing process for both the adults and children, because everyone knows everyone in their tight-knit town. Dr. Phil reminds the parents to keep the dialogue open with their children. “You’ve got to do whatever you have to do so they feel comfortable to give it a voice.”

Dr. Phil prepares the parents for their children attending funerals and memorial services, if they choose to let them. And, he explains how the parents will know when they’re getting back to better days. “Don’t get confused in thinking the length of time that you mourned, the depth of your pain, in any way reflects how much you loved and cared about those whom you lost.”


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Dr. Greenberg shares his thoughts about the resilience of children. And, Dr. Lawlis sheds light on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and how parents can try to prevent it from affecting their children.

“What’s really important in order to prevent PTSD is to keep them processing.”