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Talking with your children about the Sandy Hook school shooting

NOTE: The following was posted by Dr. Leslie E. Packer on the TSPlus Blog on December 15 and is being republished her with kind permission.

Last week’s tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut, are all over the news. At times like this, parents often ask how they can help their children cope and how to talk to them about something that we can’t fully wrap our own heads around. So here are some tips on how to talk with your child:

1. Start the conversation.  If you don’t start the conversation, their first source of information may frighten them more.  Start by asking them if they have heard anything about what happened at an elementary school on Friday.

Avoid asking, “Have you heard about the tragic  shooting at a school?” or anything that would start out by elevating the level of emotion.  If they say they’ve heard something, ask them what they’ve heard and then begin to calmly tell them the facts.

You do not want to tell them everything at this point – providing too many details can flood the child and make them fearful. Try to keep your emotions in check so as not to overwhelm your child.  For some of us, this will be the hardest part as we have been crying ourselves and find this incomprehensible or overwhelming.

At this point, you need to be focusing on your child and not your own feelings.  Turn the TV off when your children are around because if they see you responding to this with intense emotion and absorption, they will, too.

2. Give them information that is age-appropriate for them. I would not tell pre-schoolers about the tragedy at all, but for elementary school-age children or older, tell them what happened:  a young man got into an elementary school and started shooting teachers and children.  You do not need to tell them right away how many children died. Wait to see if your child asks you.

Take your cues from your child’s reactions: If they ask you questions, answer them calmly, but do not give them more information than they are asking for at this point. This is your first conversation about what happened, and they may come back to you numerous times with other questions or concerns.  Each time, calmly answer their questions but do not give them more than what they are asking for.

3. Give them an opportunity to express their feelings about what has happened and what you are telling them. Avoid implanting strong emotions. If you say, “It’s tragic” or “It’s so awful,” your child will adopt your emotional response.  Do not be surprised if young children do not respond as strongly emotionally as you do. Their focus may be on “How does this affect me?”

Help them express their emotion.  Children can do things to express their own feelings and to offer comfort to others.  Would they like to do a drawing for themselves? Young children can often express and work through their emotion that way.

Would they like to write “Sandy Hook” on a balloon and then go to a beach or park and release the balloon to release their sadness? Older children may want to send a letter to the children of Sandy Hook to express sympathy or comfort and  can send letters to Sandy Hook, 912 Dickinson Dr., Sandy Hook, CT 06482.

Or perhaps your child might like to go plant something in your garden to remember and honor the children who died. We don’t want to encourage them to overfocus on grief or worry, but do encourage them  to express their emotions and support them in a way that is appropriate for them.   Do not push your child to do any of these things, but be prepared to suggest them if your child seems to be having a difficult time expressing sad or worrying feelings.

4. Reassure your child that they will be kept safe.  This is probably the most important tip I can give you. It is understandable that your child might react by thinking, “What if this happened in my school?”  Tell your child that what happened in Newtown is a very unusual event and  that their school has always kept them safe and will continue to keep them safe.

For older children, reassure them but you can add that all schools are working to learn from what happened in Newtown to make their own schools even safer.  If your child expresses concern about going back to school on Monday and wants you to take them, tell them that you will take them on Monday so they can see that their school is safe.

5.  Be prepared.  Young children cannot hang on to sadness or intense feelings for long. After a few minutes, your child may ask, “Can I go out and play” or “Can I go watch my show?” That does not mean your child has no empathy. It means that they are doing what children do – thinking about themselves and their needs.

So yes, let them go out and play or watch their show if you normally would. Remember that this is just your first conversation with them, and we do want them to learn that even when there’s bad or sad news, life goes on. Keeping your child in their normal routine will help them cope with the news.

6. Monitor your child afterwards.  Many of our children have OCD, anxiety, or depressive symptoms already.  If your child appears to be thinking about the Newtown tragedy too much in the week or weeks to come, if they suddenly become more clingy or demanding, or if they resist going to school,  they may need more help coping with it.

Keep the lines of communication open, but if you see significant mood or behavior changes, do not hesitate to contact your child’s psychiatrist, psychologist, or pediatrician.  Their school psychologist can also be a helpful resource for children who are having difficulty coping.

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