With yesterday’s horrifying events in Newton, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School comes an enormous slew of media coverage. There also comes a certain level of desire to protect your children from not only the level of violence that occurred yesterday, but also the the traumatic nature of hearing the story. Many parents struggle to find the words to explain to their children what happened and answer any of their questions, so here are some tips collected from various sources on how to discuss such tragedy with your kids.
- Do not let them watch the news. From speculations to experts to debates to constant updates, children do not need to hear every terrible detail nor see graphic images.
- Do not hide what happened from children, but make sure you only tell them necessary information. According to mental health care specialist and licensed social worker Tanya Martin, interviewed by The Daily News, it’s important to keep kids informed in a helpful, not harmful, manner. “Parents need to be the ones to tell the children what happened, and they need to do it in an age-appropriate way. What will happen is they’ll go to school Monday and hear it from their peers.”
- Let them know they can discuss it with you at any time. Children do not always have a clear understanding on what it okay or not okay to talk about openly, so it’s important to let them know that, yes, you want them to come to you with any concerns.
- Talk to them “in a calm way,” said Los Angeles sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker. Don’t overwhelm them with discussions of the motives or the death toll or who’s responsible, and try to be soothing about whatever you do say.
- Reassure them that they are safe. I was a relatively young child on September 11, 2001, and I still remember how unsafe I felt for weeks. Fortunately, my parents would keep telling me over and over about all the reasons why we were going to be okay, and that would make me feel less frightened. According to associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA Emanuel Maidenberg, it’s important that you “tell them the truth, in their language…let them know that this is something that doesn’t happen very often and they are safe.”
- Allow them to cope in their own (healthy) ways. Child psychologist Rahil Briggs states that exposure to scary news such as this can result in behavioral changes like loss of appetite, clinginess and irritability. However, many children find it unknowingly therapeutic to express their fears through play, whether by drawing or using blocks. Letting your child show his or her thoughts through art or make believe can help open up a discussion and exploration of questions the child may have about death and tragedy.
There’s no clear cut way to deal with something of this magnitude — especially when many of us cannot help but have such visceral reactions to something so senseless and so terrible. Nevertheless, helping children who may not quite understand what is going on, but know they are afraid, can help prevent psychological stress on their minds, and protecting those is so desperately important in times like these.