Talking With Children About the Connecticut School Shooting

I knew something was wrong the second I saw my husband’s face. He was fighting back tears. . “What is it?” I asked, urgently. When he hesitated, I said “Tell me fast!” as I tried to hold off imagining every awful thing that could have upset him so deeply. He told me about the shooting this morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT: 26 people dead, including 20 children.

My first reaction was pure horror—So senseless! So cruel! So profoundly wrong!—then a selfish, but heartfelt prayer of thanks that my own children were safe followed by gut-churning sadness for the parents whose children wouldn’t be coming home this afternoon and for the children and teachers and families who witnessed this tragedy and whose lives will be deeply affected by it.

Because I’m a mom, I thought about how I’d talk to my children about this tragedy. Because I’m a therapist, I also thought about how this event would affect some of my most anxious clients, particularly one little girl whose awareness of world events far exceeds that of her agemates.

Children understand death in different ways at different ages. Three- and four-year olds see death as temporary and not personally relevant. Young grade school children understand that death is permanent but don’t believe they will die. They may find symbols of death frightening. Around age nine, children grasp that they too will die someday. Some respond by being extra cautious, while others become daredevils. Teens are capable of abstract reasoning and may enjoy philosophical discussions about life and death, good and evil, but if tragedy strikes too close to home, they may revert to more concrete ways of thinking.

Here are some things you may want to keep in mind when talking to your child about the Connecticut shooting.

- Start wherever your child is. Children may misunderstand adult conversations or get inaccurate information from peers. Hearing about the shooting repeatedly may make young children think it’s happening again and again. Ask your child, “What have you heard?” This may give you the opportunity to clarify or reassure. For instance, you may need to explain that the shooter is not in your backyard, that the shooting is over, or that school shootings are (fortunately) a very rare event.

With young children, especially, keep your explanations short and factual. Emphasize that they are safe. Don’t be surprised if you see drawings or imaginative play about the shooting. That’s children’s way of controlling and making sense of their experiences. These activities can present opportunities to talk with your child. On the other hand, you may see nothing if your child doesn’t view the shooting as personally relevant.

Follow your child’s lead about how much to talk about the shooting. If your child doesn’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. You don’t have to push it.

- Be careful what you let your child see. There will be nonstop media coverage as this event unfolds. It’s probably impossible to prevent all but the youngest of children from hearing about this event, but use your judgment about how much and what kind of information your child can handle.

Consider both content and immediacy. Immediacy means how “in your face” information is. Hearing a trusted adult calmly say that there’s been a shooting is less immediate than reading a detailed description of the shooting, which is less immediate than seeing photos of the children who died, which is less immediate than seeing video footage of a grieving parent sobbing as she talks about how her child suffered and died. Most children could tolerate hearing about the shooting, even though it’s frightening, but few could tolerate the video footage, nor is there any benefit in exposing them to such vivid information.

- Take care of yourself. Children are magnets for emotion, so they’re likely to pick up on adults’ fear, sadness, horror, and anger about this event, even if they don’t fully understand what’s going on. In order to be able to take care of your child, you need to take care of yourself. Reach out to a friend, family member, or spouse for comfort. Watch your own level of media exposure. Get enough exercise, rest, and healthy food. And if you find yourself acting irritable or tense, reassure your children that they’re not the cause.

- Keep things stable and predictable at home. . Routines are comforting to children. While it might be tempting to keep your children constantly by your side in the aftermath of a tragedy, it sends them an important message about your confidence in their safety if you allow them to continue their normal routine about school or daycare, meals, baths, and bedtime. Of course, some extra hugs won’t hurt.

- Find child-size ways to take action. . Most of us feel better when we can do something about a problem. If your child seems preoccupied with the shooting, you might want to help your child come up with some way to take action. This could involve saying a prayer together, sending a card or letter, signing a petition, raising money for an appropriate charity, or even just spending extra time with loved ones.

- Talk about values. . When tragedy strikes, it can derail us, but it’s also a call to be our best selves. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate and talk about our deepest values with our children, especially courage and compassion.

Tips for talking to kids about scary news
Published on December 14, 2012 by Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D. in Growing Friendships

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