On December 14, 26 people, mostly young children, were massacred at Sandy Hook School, in Newtown, Connecticut. The 20 year-old shooter, armed with three weapons, also died, presumably by his own hand, while we are all left to wonder at his motives. It’s a story we’ve become all too familiar with in these uncertain times. With so many of these events in the news—such as the killing of 12 people in an Aurora, CO, movie theater in May, and the fatal shooting of two people as well as the gunman at a shopping mall in Happy Valley, OR, earlier this week—it can be difficult to process this type of violence. And that is especially true for children. How does one explain the unexplainable? Or find a way to make sense of the senseless? Schools, movie theaters, and shopping malls should be safe places, but this is increasingly not the case. In the embedded video, a psychiatrist talks about grieving families in regard to the Connecticut school shooting. If you have young children, and are wondering how to talk to them about these tragic events, here are some tips.
First and foremost, reassure your kids that although something terrible has happened, they are now safe. It might be helpful to review some of the safety procedures in place at their schools to help them understand the planning that went into keeping them safe while they are there. Talk about locks on the doors, emergency drills, thick walls, and adult supervisors. Does your family use a secret password or carry a cell phone for emergencies? These factors, along with the help of public safety officials, all work together to protect children.
Consider the age of your child, or children, when explaining this, and choose your words carefully. Give basic information about events, but don’t go into more detail than necessary. Very young children need brief, simple words, while older children may need more detailed explanations. For younger children, focus on “how,” while for older children, you may want to focus on “why.” Sometimes people do bad things which hurt other people. There are a variety of reasons for this, such as anger, mental illness, the influence of drugs or alcohol, or a combination of factors. Talk about these things without dwelling on motives.
Ask children what they know, and use that as the basis for your discussions. Be patient. Sometimes children work up their confidence in degrees, and it can be difficult for them to verbalize their fears and feelings all at once. Take your cues from them.
For children with active imaginations, you may need to discuss the differences between reality and fantasy, to assure them that the scary things they might imagine will not come to life. Let them talk and explain their fears without judgment. Don’t tell them their fears are silly or unwarranted. If they’re feeling it, it’s real to them, and that’s what matters.
Be sure your kids have an outlet if they need to express themselves in non-verbal ways. Today and the coming days will be ideal for family and individual activities. For younger children, more creative projects such as drawing or playing dress-up will help. For older children, board games or listening to music might be more appropriate. With the holidays approaching, now’s a good time to bake up some goodies or go out to look at Christmas lights as a family.
Talk about safety, at school, in public, and at home. Keep in mind this is meant to reassure children, not to frighten them. If something bad happens, who would they contact? Do they understand how to dial 911 in an emergency? Does your family have a designated meeting spot? Do your children know that if they are ever lost in a public place that they should look for a woman with children to help? Review your safety procedures so that everyone feels comfortable.
Don’t stay glued to the TV. Networks like CNN are in business to keep you informed of every last detail and tend to repeat information until there is breaking news. While this may help you understand a situation as an adult, it can be overwhelming for children. Read your news online or from the newspaper, or check the television only occasionally. Likewise, keep yourself in check and make sure your children are not overhearing you discuss this event and sharing your anger or frustration with others. This will be confusing to them.
Keep things as normal as possible. In times of tragedy, we crave our regular routine more than ever. Going about our daily lives is comforting in the wake of mass shootings and other horrific events. And this is one more way that we show children that they are safe.
Finally, don’t be afraid to show some emotion. Even our commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama, who is often noted for his stoicism, could not contain his emotion when he addressed the nation. A parent himself, he wiped back tears when talking about the young children whose lives were lost. That is a perfectly normal and acceptable reaction, and it models appropriate behavior. It is OK to grieve and be sad. Be sure your children understand this.
In conclusion, helping children deal with tragedy is no easy task. It is these moments which make us question our parenting abilities and wonder if what we do or say is making a difference. It’s a different world than we lived in when we were children. Many of us remember coming home from school to see Mr. Rogers, and the late Fred Rogers gave a wonderful quote about dealing with tragedy. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
Talk it up:
How do you talk to your children about tragedy?
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