My heart is breaking for the children, families, community members and professionals affected by the tragic shooting today at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. Why horrific events like this occur is a complicated issue for another day. Right now, many parents, teachers and loved ones are faced with explaining what happened today to the youngsters who trust them. Here are some suggestions.
First of all, turn off the news when your kids are around. Young children are not equipped to make sense of the ongoing news coverage of tragedies like this one. In fact, if YOU are having trouble coping with something you see on the news, you can be sure your children will have trouble with it too. Little kids often can’t tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t on television. Also, because a child’s sense of time and reality is different from adults, a child watching ongoing news coverage may fail to understand that the terrifying event has ended. The child may think the shootings are continuing and may be confused and upset about why adults and police are doing nothing to stop it.
Toddlers and preschoolers will rarely comprehend what has happened so it’s usually best to only discuss traumatic events if your child spontaneously brings them up. Very young children’s ability to tell fact from fiction on television is very limited and even very tragic events that don’t directly touch their lives are unlikely to effect them very much. However, their emotional radar is very sensitive so they may pick up on your sadness, grief and horror. If you are feeling emotional don’t just brush it off. You might explain to your child that something sad has happened and you are feeling sad about it but you will be OK. Accept a comforting hug, the loan of a favorite stuffed toy or cup of water offered by your child and let them know they are helping you to feel better.
When discussing traumatic events with school aged children it’s important to consider your child’s developmental level. Your child will usually give you clues about how much they can handle. Children do need to understand that there are bad people in the world and sometimes those bad people do bad things that hurt people. If your child doesn’t bring the topic up on his own, you might start out with a general statement, such as, “A bad thing happened at a school in Connecticut today. Have you heard about it?” It’s important to listen carefully to your child’s answer. Don’t hurry the conversation. Maintain good eye contact and use hugs and other kinds of touch for comfort. Answer any questions they have as gently as you can. Don’t lecture or provide excessive detail but strive to be as honest and direct as you can.
Allow your child to talk out their worries and concerns and provide responses that will help your child feel safe, secure and taken care of. Avoid making promises that you can’t keep but be as reassuring as you can. The conversation might go something like this: Child: “Why would someone go into a school and shoot up a bunch of little kids? Schools are supposed to be safe! Why didn’t the police and teachers keep him from hurting those kids?” Your responses might be “Most people are good and most people would never harm a child or shoot anybody. There are bad people who sometimes do bad things. Often there is something wrong with these bad people but sometimes nobody knows what’s wrong with them until it’s too late. Most of the time, adults keep children safe and nothing bad happens to them. Schools are usually very safe and it’s very rare for any child to be harmed in a school. Teachers and principals do everything they can to take care of school children and keep them safe. Policemen usually keep bad people from hurting other people. The bad things that happened today are very unlikely to happen here. I will do everything I can to keep you safe and prevent bad things from happening to you. It’s also important to think about all the good people today who did great things to help. Most of the children and teachers were not hurt. The police came and did a good job today. Do you have any worries about your own school or your teachers or friends?” Listen to the child’s answer. Then ask if there is anything they would like to do to help the children families and people in the community where the shootings occurred. You and your child can draw and mail condolence cards, send money or toys, or light a candle and say a prayer. With the holidays upon us, you also might discuss if there is anything you and your child want to do to contribute to the victim’s families for the holidays. Children have very generous hearts and helping them help others can be a particularly beautiful way for them to cope with tragedy and help themselves as well.
Your child may regress. Children may start wetting the bed or having nightmares. Handle these occurrences calmly and provide support and comfort. Encourage the use of “transitional” objects such as blankets or stuffed toys if they help the child feel safe and secure. If your child starts having angry outbursts or tantrums, be as patient as you can and help the child understand their feelings and talk them out. Violence or aggression is not acceptable and should be discouraged and appropriately consequenced in a way that is consistent with your values and family rules.
Older kids and teens may raise some very difficult questions. If you don’t know how to answer a question it’s OK to admit it. Moral, spiritual and faith-based discussions and prayers can be very helpful and comforting. If you are unsure how to handle a situation have the child talk to a counselor or religious leader about their concerns. You can still be a loving caring parent without having all the answers! You aren’t required to know how to handle all situations but you are responsible for finding the resources your child needs when you aren’t sure what to do.
It’s always a good idea to discuss safety issues with your children. To effectively address your child’s fears and worries, have a discussion about how they can respond if something bad happens or if they find themselves in a dangerous situation. Be practical and realistic. While you don’t want your child’s response to trauma to be a life ruled by fear and worry, you do want a child who knows how to keep him or herself as safe as possible in a world where bad things sometimes do happen. We all want to raise children who make good decisions and know how to stay calm and handle adversity well.
Be sure to bring the focus back to the positive aspects of family, community, comfort, caring and faith. Draw the child’s attention to all the heroes of the day. Help your child do something positive and constructive to help the victims. Teens in particular may also be interested in participating in political or community action to help prevent future re-occurrences of similar events. Artistic or written self-expression and music can help your child process the experience and the deep feelings it may have evoked. Religious services, vigils, memorials and community ceremonies can be very comforting so participation should be encouraged if the child wishes.
Sadly, coping with your child’s reaction to traumatic events can be a long-term process. If your child has been directly affected by tragedy, expect ongoing conversations. Your child will be unable to process everything you tell them the first time they hear it. Be open to your child’s feelings and reactions. Validate their feelings. Listen, give lots of hugs, provide comfort and have confidence that things will get better. Most children are resilient so with love and the right kind of support, they will be fine.