Talking with Children About the Connecticut School Shootings

All over the country people are horrified at the shootings that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Our hearts go out to all the families affected by this tragedy.  While many facts of the shooting remain to be learned, tonight millions of parents will do their best to try and talk to their children about what happened.  While there is no right answer for every child, a few principles might be useful to keep in mind during this process.  Local Fox44 News  aired an interivew that we did today on the topic.  The overall goal of these conversations should be to help children feel safe about going to school.  Among the things that were discussed but didn’t make the final broadcast include the following.

Younger children may not need to know much about this event, if anything. For toddlers and preschool children, it is quite likely that they will not know about what happened, and it is fine to keep it that way.  If they do know, they also will be quite likely to ask.

Older children, however, will probably have heard the news and it is good for parents to have a conversation with them so that they can hear things from a parent’s perspective. Many of these kids may not spontaneously bring up the topic on their own.  For these children, a few principles may be good to consider.

1)  Start the conversation with questions rather than statements.  This tip can also help you know how much they know about the shooting.  Have you heard about what happnened in Connecticut?  How did you hear?  What are your friends saying about it?  All of these starter questions can help open the dialogue and show your child that you want to listen as much as talk.  It also can help you find potential myths or misconceptions about the events that need correction.

2)  Remind kids that schools are safe.  It may not seem like it at times, but these kinds of horrible events remain very rare and schools continue to be very safe places for kid to be.  It can be useful to remind children of this fact clearly.

3)  Refocus on the heros.  Many of us are naturally drawn to questions about the shooter, but it can be good to remember that in many tragedies there are heros such as teachers or first responders who put their lives on the line for others.  If older children want to talk more about the shooting, help them think about the helpers so that their attention isn’t drawn exclusively to the perpetrators.

4) Keep yourself in check.  This tip doesn’t mean parents should be emotionally flat (even our president couldn’t do that), but it is important to stay in control so that you can say and do what is going to be most helpful for your child.

5)  Limit media expsoure to the shooting.  While it can be hard to resist, kids do not need to be watching 24 hour coverage of the shooting.  In fact, it can make things worse and cause higher levels of anxiety.   Waiting until after the kids go to sleep to get an update on the news is not going change what happened.

In many ways, today’s shooting is likely to be harder on parents than for children.  Nevertheless, some kids, especially those who already struggle with anxiety, may need extra support and guidance.  For parents looking for additional tips and information, a good source is the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.  Tonight, as our president says, many of us will be hugging our kids a little tighter.  Tomorrow, we need to think about how we as a community can keep something like this from ever happening again.



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