How to Talk to Your Child About the Newtown School Shooting

Heartbreak, Self

10 Things to consider when talking to your children about the school shooting.

It's unthinkable that when you send your child off to school you would ever receieve a call such as those parents in Newtown, CT did on December 14th.  It's a parents worst nighmare.  My heart aches for those families, as I know everyone's does.  As a parent or one who works with children, you may face difficult questions.  It is important that you address the topic with your child even if they don't bring it up - they most definitely have heard about it.  The way children process emotions connected with tragedy is through questions, play, art, and talking through their own thoughts and feelings.  By providing the platform for your children to discuss their thoughts, fears and feelings you can help prevent them from manifesting into anxiety or other challenging behaviors. 

Here are some guidelines on talking to your child about the events that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School and any other tragedies:

1.  Use the "ACT" model to discuss the topic with your child:

A - Acknowledge the event and the feelings that your child may have around hearing of the shooting.  By acknowledging it, you provide the opportunity for them to share their thoughts and feelings, some which may be extreme or incorrect.  This provides you an opportunity toget a pulse on how it's impacting them.  

C - Convey a message of safety and protection.  Children of all ages look to their parents for safety and security.  Let them know that you and all those around them are always making their safety a number one priority.  Also communicate honestly, that you don't understand why this happened and that it is hard to make sense of it.  It's okay to express your sadness around the event, but don't let it create overprotection or increased anxiety for you.  Your child picks up on your unspoken communication and will recognize and feel it if they notice you becoming highly anxious.

T - Talk to your children about the events in a developmentally age appropriate manner.  Don't let younger children watch the news stories that go into great detail and provide too much information that is not necessary for them to hear and see.  Rather then watch the news stories, keep the TV off and talk to them about the event.  Ask them what questions or concerns they have.  For older children use this as an opportunity to discuss their opinions around the topic.  You can talk to your children about ways they may help support these families, ideas they have about what they can do to care for others they don't know but whose lives have been drastically affected by this.  Helping them identify some way they can contribute can be a meaningful way to turn fear into compassion and caring.

2.  Understand that children process differently then adults.  They may or may not have questions initially.  They may bring up the topic again when you don't expect it, and may process their thoughts and feelings in stages.  It may also be helpful to check in with them and see if they have more thoughts or if kids are talking about it at school.  Ask them what they are hearing, what kids are saying, and what they think about it.  Stay attuned to their emotional state and let them know they can continue to ask questions or share their thoughts and feelings as they come up.  

3.  Assess the impact on your child.  If it is something that you sense continues to be on their mind, let them know that you notice that.  Talk to them about it and let them know they can share their thoughts and questions as they come up, any time.  Don't buy into the theory that if you don't talk about it, it won't affect them and if you do talk about it you will plant fears in their minds.  Children are looking to you for cues about what is and isn't okay to discuss.  If you bring it up and they clearly don't have any worries or concerns, then you will be able to tell.  Children hear and see way more then parents tend to realize and it's better that you have the conversations with them rather then them seeking information elsewhere.

4.  If you don't know the answer to their question(s), be honest.  If it's something you can find out - let them know you will find out and get back to them.  

5.  Avoid saying things such as, "you shouldn't be thinking about this" or "don't worry about these kinds of things".  Children hear that as your unwillingness to discuss it with them and will feel that their feelings are being discounted.  Parents tend to minimize things that make them uncomfortable, but that ultimately creates a disconnection with your child.

6. Find a way as a family to turn the tragedy into a way of giving and caring.  Do a fundraiser to contribute to the non-profits that are providing support to the families affected by this, write letters or send cards.  There are many ways to help you and your children turn a tragedy into a lesson on compassion and caring for the larger community.

7.  Seek professional help if your child begins to exhibit anxiety, which can be manifested in nightmares or difficulty going to sleep, a change in appetite, or excessive fears.  Professionals who work with children are trained in helping children and coaching parents to help their child work through their anxiety.

8.  Know what your schools safety plan is.  If your child is anxious about going to school let them know what their schools safety plan is and ask them what else would help them to feel safe.  Children can often tell you what they need.

9.  Help your children instill the values you hold as a family.  Pray together, light a candle, talk as a family about the events and the feelings you all have around the tragedy.  Helping your child learn how to grieve, calling on your faith/spiritual beliefs in times of uncertainty, and connecting as a family will help you all feel closer as a family and provide something you can do in a situation that feels out of your control.

10.  Provide consistency, support, love and nurturance.  Consistent routines help children feel safe.  Unfortunately, as parents we can't shield our children from learning about bad things that happen in the world.  But we can help them learn how to get through them.  Knowing you are willing and able to be there for them when they feel scared goes a long way in helping them find a sense of security.

It's tragedies such as this that we all face the reality of what a broken world we live in.  I think all parents are hugging their kids a little tighter and saying more prayers for their continued safety.  Let's all continue to pray for those families who lost their precious child or family member and can't give them a hug are all in my thoughts and prayers.