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Talking to your children about Newtown
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Talking to your children about Newtown

Be honest, act calm, and reassure them that ‘helpers’ are in charge

The elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., is every parent’s worst nightmare. Adults all around the country and world are struggling to make sense of it, process it, and cope with it.

Should parents talk with their children about it and how can parents talk to their children about what happened?

These are not easy decisions or conversations. While most of us would like to shield children from ever knowing that such horror exists, children know and pick up more than we think.

I recommend that parents do talk with their children about the incident, keeping the following in mind:

• First and most important, take care of yourself: This horrific event has deeply affected adults. Before talking to your child, find ways to get help and comfort for yourself. Make sure you are talking to your child in order to help your child and not as a way to process and make sense of this tragedy for yourself.

• Start the conversation: Children may be thinking about the incident without bringing their thoughts and concerns to their parents; it is helpful for the parent to begin the conversation.

• Find an appropriate time to talk: Choose a place where you can talk without being interrupted and a time when the conversation is not rushed and the child feels she or he can be listened to and have questions answered.

• Find out what your child knows: Before telling children about what happened, ask an open-ended question about whether they heard what happened at a school.

• Keep it simple: Children do not need to know most of the details about the shooting, and we do not want to scare them further with facts that are too much for them.

• Tailor the talk to the child: Young children need brief, simple information balanced with reassurances. Older children will be more vocal about their questions and may need more information about efforts to keep them and their community safe. Teenagers may want to discuss viewpoints about the causes of violence in schools and society and may need to have discussions about what they and their peers can do to be safe.

• Be honest: While children do not need all the facts, it is important to tell them the truth. Don’t pretend the event has not occurred or is not serious. Children are smart and may be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what is happening.

• Reassure children that they are safe: While we cannot and do not want to tell children that this will never happen to them, we want to reassure them that school is a safe place and that parents and schools make efforts to keep them safe.

• Give permission for many feelings: Explain that all feelings are okay when something scary like this happens. Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective. Younger children may not be able to express their feelings with words but rather through their body language and other cues.

• Share your feelings: It is important for children to know that the adults in their lives have similar feelings when bad things happen. It is important, however, that you remain in control and monitor your emotions and tone of voice. If you’re finding it difficult to manage your reactions, you may want to enlist another adult to help you.

• Maintain a “normal” routine: To the extent possible, stick to your family’s normal routine for eating, sleeping, homework, etc.; it provides a solid foundation for recovery and helps children know they are safe.

• Limit media exposure: An uninterrupted flow of information can heighten children’s anxiety and fears. Allow breaks for yourself as well.

• Remind children that trustworthy and helpful people are in charge: It is important for children (and adults) to be reminded how many helpful people there are in the world, especially during times of crisis. As Mister Rogers said: “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 the world.”

Above all, if your child exhibits anxiety or new, troubling behaviors, don’t struggle with it on your own. Seek the assistance of licensed clinical social workers who are experts in child development.

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