Erin Sepe

Several years ago I was substituting, for a day, in a kindergarten classroom when the school practiced a “code red” drill. I found myself, with 20 five-years-olds, huddled under the desk, lights off, shades drawn, and classroom door locked. Part of the drill includes the principal walking down the halls and checking that the classroom doors are locked. When she got to our classroom, we could hear the doorknob move. I noticed a five-year-old girl, crouched near me, crying. She said something like, “Is that the bad guy?” she may have even used the word “shooter.” I tried to reassure her, comfort her, by saying, “No, that is the principal checking that we are practicing the right safety.” Immediately, another little girl said, “For when it really happens.”

My children are now fourteen and twelve. They are in middle school, and they have never known a world without school shootings and terrorist attacks. After the recent horror in Florida where a former student returned to his high school and killed seventeen, wounded, some critically, another twenty and shook to the core hundreds of thousands of on-lookers, I wonder how we use Solution Focused Therapy to aid in what we have not been able to control.

A colleague and friend said her nineteen-year-old son commented, “I’m numb. It just happens, and there’s nothing you can do about it”. He’s not alone. What do we do as clinicians when we cannot assure a positive outcome or a remedy? My kids made it through elementary school and when these gut-wrenching atrocities occur, I think, “We’re almost there” my daughter has four years of high school left and my son six. The reality is though that this happens on college campuses, concerts, and shopping malls. How do we counsel the uncontrollable? After all, if it is in the back of our minds as parents, it’s at least on our children’s minds when “code red lockdown” is unexpectedly announced over the intercom. We all see the images, and when we begin to push it out of the forefronts of our minds, we are ambushed again.

Talking about the frequency, intensity and unpredictability of the problem can reinforce feeling prey and fearful. I appreciate that Solution-Focused Therapy can offer something else. As counselors, we can turn the focus from the problem by focusing on questions. Asking, “What helps to deal with, manage or cope” with regard to our clients’ feelings surrounding these shootings. Scaling “How well are you coping on a scale of 0-10” can be helpful, recognizing that “10” may not be something attainable by one individual. Maybe it’s a matter of a “good enough” coping number. Maybe a “7” is the best an individual can manage. Asking clients, “Who helps them get a good enough number,” “What do you do that helps to move you up the scale when you are lower?” Scaling “Where were you on the scale just before the tragedy occurred?”, “What was it like when you were higher on the scale?” and “What small thing would help to return to that number?” Also helpful is asking “How come” the number on their current scale is not lower.

Additionally, asking clients how a “VIP,” a mother, father, teacher, sibling or other VIP would rate the client’s ability to cope is a way to bring the perspective of others and introduce information that the client had not given consideration. Often clients or their VIP’s gain knowledge that is helpful in moving toward solutions. Exploring VIP’s and what a client values about their VIP’s helps the client recall the support and care she has received from them. Finally, asking clients, “What do you think it would mean for your VIP to see you moving up the scale toward your goal?” allows a client to consider the impact their success has on the people they find important.

If ever and until we have a solution to school shootings and terrorist attacks, focusing on how we cope with the possibility that it could happen again might be better than focusing on the unpredictable and vast nature of the problem.

Erin lives in Rhode Island with her husband and two children. She has a private practice in East Greenwich, RI where she works with adolescents, adults, and couples, and has been a Licensed Mental Health Counselor for 14 years. She has experience working with children and adolescents in State care who were transitioning from the hospital or residential settings into the foster care system and working with the birth families and complex systems of care involved in the care of these children and families. Erin attended our past summer intensive and currently is engaged in solution-focused coaching within the Institute. Thank you, Erin, for your timely and thoughtful contribution!