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Elizabeth Scott, M.S.

How To Talk To Your Children About The Sandy Hook Tragedy

By December 17, 2012

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Across the country--indeed, across the world--we have been heartbroken to hear the wrenching details of the events in Connecticut on December 14th. We want to honor the innocent victims--the children who were full of promise, and the adults who were each generous and loving, at least two of whom died heroically while trying to save others. Hearing the details, however, can also be very difficult. Most of us identify with the victims and are mourning the loss of people we did not know, and the pain of their families--and we feel for them deeply.

Tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting can shake us to our core, for these reasons and because they can threaten our sense of safety in the world. Random acts of violence in general can affect how safe we feel in the world, but when the victims are very young children, teachers, and school personnel who are simply going about their daily routine our sense of safety is further threatened as we realize that this could have been any of our children or loved ones. This realization can hit children especially hard.

Due in part to the far reach of the media, children--even young children--may be hearing about the tragedy and may feel threatened. Children of all ages, from young children to teens, may feel unsettled and wonder if they themselves may be in danger. This may show up in young children as a fear of going to school, a voiced concern that they may not be safe there. Older children and teens may feel a general lack of safety in the world, a feeling that nobody is completely immune to tragedy. How does one go about talking to their kids, helping them with processing their concerns and and alleviating fears?

The following guidelines can help you to navigate some of the possibly uncomfortable but necessary conversations that may be taking place around these issues right now. Every child is different and every family has their own way of communicating, but here are some general thoughts that can help:

  • Listen, But Don't Give More Information Than Necessary
    Children may be curious about what exactly happened, but they don't necessarily need to know every details, as some of this information may create more fears. How much they should know depends on the age and personality of the child, as well as on how much they have already heard. Does your child tend to imagine the worst? Are they naturally fearful or cautious already? Do they already understand that random violence happens in the world, but that they are generally safe? If you have a teen, it is likely that they can go online to access whatever information they want to know, and by now, they probably have already done so. Younger children, however, may have heard information from their peers and their school may have already shared some information, but they may have limited facts, so it is a good idea to talk to them and let them tell you what they already know. Then answer questions and share what they can understand for their age level, but be sensitive to their needs for their level of maturity. Keep answers simple, particularly with younger children, or with children who do not show a strong need to talk. Having open lines of communication can help them feel safer, so it can help to have you as resource they can trust, but if they aren't asking or demonstrating that they want to know, it is okay not to share details that they don't need to know at this point.
  • Talk About Feelings--Carefully
    Your child may really need to share what they are feeling and have your help in making sense of these feelings. It is best to talk to your children about this only if you are in a healthy place with it yourself, meaning, be sure you are not feeling panicked about your child's safety when you talk to them, or you may transfer your fears to them. (If you are not feeling centered enough to talk to your children about this yet, you may want to wait to talk until you have processed some of your own emotions, or see if there is another trusted adult they can talk to, such as a school counselor.) If you feel up to it, however, it can be helpful to invite sharing. Older children may be able to articulate their feelings, while younger children may want to draw a picture, or may use few words. Let them know that it is okay to be sad, and it "normal" to be shaken up by this. Encourage them to be brave, and let them know they can talk to you. And be sure to listen.
  • Validate And Reassure
    If children are feeling anxiety, your listening can help them to feel validated and supported. You can also reassure them by reminding them how exceedingly rare these types of events really are. Although we tend to hear a lot about tragedies like these when they occur, the actual chances of something like this happening to a child are tiny. Sometimes children need this to be explained, and they then feel better.
  • Don't Force It
    Some children really may not feel a strong need to talk about this, and that is okay. Children react in unique ways; children of certain ages and personality types really may not need to talk. (For example, some very young children may not grasp the permanence of these losses.) In such cases, well-meaning adults can help create more negative feelings than would have otherwise been there. Other times, the need to talk may come a little later. Let your child know that you are there if needed, but let them say if they need to talk.
  • Provide Extra Time Together
    Most parents are holding their children a little more tightly right now. This feeling may be mutual--kids may need to feel the closeness of their parents a little more right now. Be sure to spend a little extra time with your kids, if possible, in the next few days. This can allow them to feel reassured on a nonverbal level, and provide more opportunities to talk if they need to.
  • Provide Extra Time Together
    Most parents are holding their children a little more tightly right now. This feeling may be mutual--kids may need to feel the closeness of their parents a little more right now. Be sure to spend a little extra time with your kids, if possible, in the next few days. This can allow them to feel reassured on a nonverbal level, and provide more opportunities to talk if they need to.
  • Take Care Of Yourselves
    During times of great stress, it is not uncommon to find it difficult to sleep, experience a loss of apetite, or even have trouble concentrating. Be sure to make a concerted effort toward self-care. Be sure you and your children are getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a schedule that includes "down time." This can help with coping.
  • Know Where To Get Help
    Be aware that there are resources in the community that can help if you need it. Your child's school will likely have information on hand to help families cope, and you can access your child's school counselor, your family doctor, or a therapist if you see signs in yourself or your children that concern you.

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Comments
May 9, 2013 at 8:51 am
(1) piyush says:

really great information about talk with your child..
i like it and also agree with you Elizabeth..

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