Helping your kids cope with trauma in real life
On July 20, a masked gunman entered a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and wounding 58. A 6-year-old girl was among the massacred. Sixteen days later, six people were slain at a Sikh temple just outside of Milwaukee before police shot and killed the shooter. And Monday, a man shot and killed two at Texas A&M University.
“The world is a frightening place,” can seem like an understatement, and supersaturated media coverage has put a parent’s ability to shelter his or her child from these atrocities next to zero.
“Censorship, historically, doesn’t work in many cases,” says Dr. Nneka Onyezia, a NorthShore University HealthSystem psychologist. “Even if your children don’t have access to media on their own, they have friends…and they leave the home. You don’t want them to hear about [events like The Dark Knight Rises shooting] from a friend before they’ve heard it from you.”
Parents today are faced with the same responsibility their parents once shouldered: helping their children cope with life’s more horrific realities. Often this involves interpreting or reframing traumas that, even as adults, we struggle to wrap our heads around.
But parents in Generations X and Y are faced with a new challenge: The America of our childhood has grown into an America where shooting sprees on home soil have become routine.
As a man who is not a parent, Onyezia’s advice for explaining these cases to children made sense to me, but lacked context. Luckily, as the story developed, I was able to speak with Julie Kerkman, 40, an Omaha, Nebraska, resident. Julie’s husband Steve Kerkman, 44, teaches English and coaches softball at Millard South High School, the site of a school shooting.
In the aftermath of that day, the Kerkmans struggled to help their three young daughters make sense of the shooting at Daddy’s school. Their story is a testament to the resilience of kids and their families. Hearing it told by their father helped to reframe Onyezia’s clinical advice in better context and actualized light.
“Parents need to make sure that they take a minute to get support for themselves before they can be that calm role model for their kids.” – Dr. Onyezia
At 1 p.m. on Jan. 5, 2011, Steve Kerkman was stooped over the Millard South Patriot’s frozen softball field, tape measure in hand. It was his first day back after winter break—a Wednesday. The pale sun hovered overhead.
On New Year’s Day, a student had driven his car through the school’s football field causing thousands of dollars worth of damage. Luckily, the softball field had been spared.
Kerkman ambled, back-bent, from one side to the other, gathering dimensions for a new chain-link backstop he hoped to install behind home plate. As he hurried to finish, hands freezing in the 20-degree air, he heard a car pull into the parking lot across the way. Then another. Then another. More kept coming. Finally, he peeked up from the tiny numbers on his measuring tape and saw something he would never forget: Idling in the school’s parking lot were 20 police cars.
“I was sitting in my meeting at work when Steve called,” says his wife Julie. The two met at Millard South years earlier when they were both English teachers. In 2011, Julie was the aquatics director at the College of St. Mary’s, a job that allowed her to spend more time with her daughters, 4-year-old Halle and 8-year-old twins Kalani and Mikenna.
Steve called from outside the school. He wasn’t allowed to go back inside, nor was he allowed to leave. He didn’t know what was going on.
Moments later, Julie got a text from a friend: “What do you know about the shooting?”
She left work immediately.
Julie’s first move was to pick up Halle at her grandmother’s house. Here, she learned the basics of what had happened by watching the looped news on TV.
The gunman, 17-year-old Robert Butler Jr., had been called into Assistant Principal Dr. Vicki Kaspar’s office that morning and suspended for driving his car through the football field on New Year’s Day. He was escorted from the grounds. At 12:45 p.m., Butler returned to school, requested to speak with 58-year-old Kaspar in her office and shot her. He then shot 45-year-old Principal Dr. Curtis Case in the hallway before fleeing the school. Police found Butler an hour later inside his car, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Julie picked up Kalani and Mikenna from school at Willow Dale Elementary around 2 p.m. The school, only a mile and a half west of Millard South, had gone into code red lockdown, erring on the side of caution. They didn’t know yet that Butler had acted alone.
When Julie pulled up in front of the school, the entire staff stood outside with the kids, clouds of breath visible as they kept watch. The girls climbed into the back of the SUV and shut the doors. Questions flew.
“You want to find out what they know and allow them to ask questions. It’s also important that you acknowledge that you don’t know the answers to all of them.” – Dr. Onyezia
“Because I knew they were going to see it and hear about it, I was very honest with them,” says Julie, who spoke with me now from her home office on a warm July afternoon. The girls could be heard in the background playing around the house.
“The news reported that a male had been shot in the office,” says Julie. She paused on her end of the line, and I asked if she was still there. I heard her speaking to Halle: “No, nobody got shot. No, the mailman did not get shot. Go play with your sisters.” Back on the phone, she said, “You see how things get construed around here?”
When the girls climbed into the car on January 5, the first thing Julie did was assure them that their Dad was safe.
“I said that there’s been a shooting up at Millard South. They said, ‘What?! Has anybody been hurt?’ I said yes,” says Julie. “I told them Vicki Kaspar had been shot, and the principal had been shot.” At that time, both Kaspar and Case were in critical condition.
The girls did not know Case but had spoken with Kaspar frequently at Millard South basketball and football games. Her common refrain to the girls was “You’ve gotten so big!” Kaspar was Dad’s friend from work. She wasn’t a close family friend, but she was still a regular presence in their lives.
“The twins’ biggest question was, ‘Why would somebody do something like that?’” says Julie. “I mean, as adults we ask that, too. But at 8, they don’t understand it. Well, we don’t understand either.”
Julie struggled to articulate herself, and here I got a glimpse of what an impossible task it must be to explain it to a child.
“I explained what I knew: that he had gotten in trouble and that [Butler] got really mad, and he came back and obviously acted inappropriately (for lack of a better word) and hurt a lot of people.”
The parents took a different approach with Halle.
“We really didn’t fill her in on what was going on, too much,” says Julie. “And she’s pretty observant, but she was 4 at the time, and the less she knew the better. We didn’t not tell her. If she had questions, we answered them. But she went up and watched cartoons while the twins and I were watching the news. It was over her head at the time, and that was fine.”
“I would encourage parents to acknowledge their children’s feelings and validate them. …Acknowledge that when something like this happens, it can make you sad or scared or angry; but show that you can have those feelings and also be calm.” – Dr. Onyezia
By nightfall, Steve had hitched a ride home with a fellow teacher and was reunited with his girls. He was shaking from the cold and “a little dumbfounded,” Julie says. She made him drink a cup of spiked hot chocolate to warm up. At 7:30 p.m. he got a text saying he could pick up his car from the Millard South parking lot. He and Julie loaded the kids into the Honda and left for one quick trip before bed.
The night drive would be Julie’s one regret with regard to how they handled the situation with the girls. Steve’s Nissan was at the epicenter of the Omaha Police Department’s still-powerful presence at the school. As they drove through the parking lot, squad cars, yellow police tape and the onsite crime lab surrounded them.
“We went up to get Steve’s car because it’s all we could do. I couldn’t leave them alone,” she says. “The girls’ eyes were huge. It was a crime scene. It’s what you see on TV, and it was right there at this place that they’ve always gone and always felt safe.”
Steve got out of the SUV and followed the girls back home in his car. Halfway there, he called Julie on her cell. Dr. Kaspar had died in the hospital.
“We didn’t tell the girls until we got home,” says Julie. “We weren’t going to tell them that night, but they asked when they were getting ready for bed. They wanted to know how Vicki was, and we told them that, well, Vicki hadn’t made it.”
The girls cried, and as Julie told me this, she became silent, at a loss for words. “I guess in their eyes…and I’m not 8…but the kids thought he (Butler) was just one of those very bad people. That’s how they perceived it.”
“If the child is at camp or at school, explore with them whether there are people whom they feel safe talking to in those settings, too. That way, they feel like they have people supporting them in lots of different settings.” – Dr. Onyezia
The coming months were a time of healing, not only for Steve, Julie and their daughters, but also for the entire Millard South community.
Mikenna and Kalani dealt with the shootings, initially, through healthy amounts of anger. When the shooter’s name came up in conversation or on the news, Mikenna would say, “No one should speak that name.” When coverage of Butler aired on TV, the twins would glare at the screen and say, “He’s bad. They shouldn’t show his picture.”
Anger eventually gave way to a growing sense of togetherness.
The Dr. Vicki Kaspar Scholarship fund was created at Millard South. One teacher started making and selling Dr. Kaspar hair bows in honor of the assistant principal; the proceeds all went to the scholarship fund.
“I bought the girls each a bow,” says Julie.
Four weeks after the shooting, Mikenna, Kalani, and Halle enrolled in the Millard South dance and cheerleading camp, a fundraiser the cheer team held every year. It culminated in the young campers performing a dance during halftime at Millard South basketball game.
“The girls wore their bows for that. They were very proud of the fact that they were wearing their Dr. Vicki bows,” Julie says.
“It’s really important to realize that every exposure to something scary doesn’t necessarily mean that the child is going to have a traumatic reaction. Trauma’s not just about being exposed to something; it’s about the reaction that follows, and it’s actually not something that is going to follow every case of exposure. [It’s important that ] parents see themselves as the first line, to try to respond to their children first, without assuming that it’s going to be a traumatic issue, and to see professionals as a support system. Sometimes our role is to help parents and families and school systems [to] help each other rather than to rush in and take over.” – Dr. Onyezia
A year and a half later, all three of the Kerkman girls are doing fine. The Millard South community has continued to heal, though the scars of that January day and the loss of Kaspar will never be forgotten.
Steve continues to teach and coach at Millard South, while Julie coaches swimming there. The site of trauma has once again become a happy place for the family. “A lot of times the girls are in the gym with Steve or at swim practice with me, so they’re up there a ton,” says Julie.
Halle enrolls in kindergarten this fall, and Julie is excited to get back into a classroom. She starts at Woodrow Wilson Middle School at the end of this month, where she’ll be teaching 6th grade Language Arts.
While the Kerkmans did not seek therapy or outside counseling for their daughters, Julie tells me they were open to it and that they would have sought counseling had the girls evidenced any further trauma-based behaviors.
Onyezia stresses that there is a time and a place to seek outside help, should the need arise. “If the parent starts to feel [that] this isn’t passing, when you’ve made a line of communication clear but their reaction is over and beyond what you would expect, and it’s lasting for [too long a] time, [then it is time] to seek professional help from a psychologist or a social worker,” he says.
Talking about the events of Jan. 5, 2011, still seemed to put a strain on Julie, though she handled it with poise and the resilience of a mother who has her children’s best interest at heart.
“As it was happening, I was questioning, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ Because you don’t know,” says Julie. “They tell you [about] normal things. They tell you…what you should feed your kids, but…they don’t make manuals for things like this.”
For now, Julie and Steve continue to take parenting one day at time, knowing that they will have their community’s support throughout the good times and especially the bad.