A woman holds a child as people line up to enter the Newtown Methodist Church near the the scene of an elementary school shooting on Dec. 14, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. Credit: Getty
With 27 people confirmed dead at the hands of a gunman who unleashed fire today at an elementary school in Connecticut, the nation is again reeling with news of an unthinkable tragedy.
And while the mass shooting continues to fuel ongoing conversations about gun control and mental illness, the day’s events have also spread widespread bewilderment through the hearts of parents, teachers and guardians around the country.
Shaken by the news and newly fearful for the safety of their children in public places, many adults may wonder how to talk about what happened with the kids they care for.
One of the best things to do, experts say, is to keep your message simple and reassuring.
“If a kid asks a question, just answer the question,” said Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist in Silver Spring, Maryland, who teaches on children and the media at the University of Maryland. “Don’t go into multiple elaborations.
“Some parents say it’s like an earthquake or a nuclear explosion, but that gets the kid’s mind racing,” he added. “Some say, ‘This is a very unusual thing to happen,’ and that’s really the right response. That’s what they want to know.”
Young children have limited resources for understanding events like this and they may be easily frightened. So, no matter how upset you are or how much you want to talk about the shooting yourself, Brody said, do your best to avoid discussing it in front of your kids if they are in their preschool or early elementary years. And leave the TV news off.
If your kids hear about it and bring it up, answer their questions, and ask them about their thoughts and feelings. But leave it at that. This is not the time to discuss gun laws or other political issues.
Up to age 8, kids who hear about the shooting may express concern about both the children and the adults involved, Brody said. By age 9 or 10, they become more concerned about their own safety and what an event like this means for them. Teenagers generally feel invincible and disconnected.
And even though it’s tempting to hold your kids tight and tell them that something like this could never happen to them, children as young as 6 know that you can’t guarantee that, Brody said, and you’ll lose credibility. Instead, point out that this is a rare and sad event.
Then, reassure them as much as you can with information that will reinforce their own sense of security, said Brenda Bursch, a pediatric psychologist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Remind them of what you and other close family members do to keep them safe. And maintain their regular routine as much as possible. For children, normalcy provides comfort.
Most young kids will accept an explanation of a traumatic event and file it away as something distant, like a TV show, Bursch said. But children who are particularly sensitive or who have experienced something similar can develop symptoms of trauma.
They may have trouble eating or sleeping. They may cry, throw tantrums, regress, ask to sleep with their parents or say they don’t want to go to school. Over the next couple of weeks, most of those kids will get over it, too. If they don’t, it may be time to seek professional help.
Considering their ages and personalities can help you determine the best way to talk to your children about this and other unimaginable tragedies.
“Be where the child is,” Bursch said. “If the child is concerned for their own safety, then it’s helpful to remind them of the facts and the things their parents are doing to keep them as safe as possible. If a kid is feeling really upset or sad, talk about how it is really sad.
“Getting a good idea of what the child is thinking and worrying about and then addressing that is the way to go.”