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How to talk to children about Dec.14 tragedy

All schools should offer a "safe place" for children who wish to talk about last Friday's tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school, Chancellor Dennis Walcott wrote in a letter to school communities and families today.

The letter, signed also by UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Ernest Logan, president of the principal's union, encouraged teachers to "give solace and support to your colleagues so we can be strong enough to take care of our students."

Included were suggestions of resources that teachers, school staff and families can refer to when helping children try to comprehend Friday's horrific acts such as Resources for Dealing with Traumatic Events in School, published by the University of Maryland's Center for School Mental Health.  

Ever since news of the school shootings in Newtown on Friday, parents have been sharing resources and suggestions on how to speak to their children about what happened. Here are a few resources to consider:

And, after the jump, here are some tips from a social worker accustomed to treating victims of crime. Thanks to Park Slope Parents listeserv for sharing them.

"Have appropriate expectations

  • Normalizing what kids are feeling is key-- be careful that you don't infuse adult feelings on your kids (or think that they can't feel like adults). Your child may be visibly upset or they may not. Don't assume that there is one "right" way to react and don't put emotions on your kid(s) that they don't have.  Everyone will respond to it in their own way, their "normal."
  • None of us is perfect, so don't expect to be able to give a perfect answer (or to have all the answers).
  • Don't let your own feelings and anxiety drive your child to be anxious about the way they are feeling. Give them space. Avoid constantly questioning and probing your child.

 Support your child

  •  Let your kids know that you love them
  • Create an environment that they feel comfortable asking questions, expressing their emotions and allowing for an open exchange of information that is age appropriate.

 Shield your child (and yourself) from the Media

Keep kids away from the media and coverage of the incident.  They just don't need to be exposed to it and it can be very traumatic for them, especially since they are interviewing kids who are pretty shaken up.  If they do see something you were trying to shield them from (e.g., a website covering the story)-- talk to them about it.

Be careful that you don't become a news junkie yourself. Digesting too much of the media during these events can change your world view and make you more paranoid.

 Talk and listen to your child

  • Find out what your child knows. They may have overheard just a snippet or have misinformation. Ask, "What did you hear?" and "What do you think?" Collect information before you start supplying information they may not want or need.
  • Acknowledge the facts, but do it in a way that is age appropriate. Leaving out details is fine in this case unless you feel it is necessary to the situation. You know your child better than anyone. Is more information going to make them more worried?
  • Be available to talk to them and let them know that you can ask any questions that they want.
  • Some kids may want to talk about the incident multiple times as they process the information. This is normal as kids process things at different rates and times.
  • In talking to kids it's okay to acknowledge that you may not have all the answers and that some things just aren't explicable.
  • The "why-would-someone-do-that question" doesn't necessarily have good answers. I think it's worth saying that they may have had something wrong with the way they were thinking (e.g., a mental illness) . It's also worth saying that you don't understand either why anyone would want to kill people.

 Reassure your child

  • Talk to your child about the safety plans that are in place at their school.Don't dismiss their feelings of being scared or worried, but do let them know that something like this is extremely rare.
  • Acknowledge that this was scary for the parents, teachers and family.
  • Reassure your child that the students, friends and families at the school are getting helped.
  • Validate your child's feelings and that what they feel is normal.
  •  Make sure your kids know they are loved and that you'll take care of them.

 Watch your own behavior:

  • Normalizing your own behavior is important here. Don't feel guilty or ashamed if you don't have all the answers for your kids or aren't the "perfect parent."  There are no right and wrong ways for you yourself to deal with this.
  • Supporting yourself as a parent is as important as supporting your child. You may need to talk to people and "feel it through;" playing "tough" and showing no emotions is not good for anyone. Find ways that are safe in processing your feelings and emotions while not put unecessary pressure on your kids. If you get upset in front of them it's okay to say, "this is a sad thing and people cry when they feel sad."
  • However, be careful not to put your angst and baggage on them. If you are overwhelmed and anxious it may cause them to feel the same. You need to process as well, but they don't necessarily need to be part of it.
  • Children will model your behavior (and the behavior they see on TV and their peers) so watch your own actions and coping mechanisms.

 Watch their behavior:

  • If possible, maintain your family routines and spend time together. (Yes this means unplugging the television, not being on the computer or cell phone.) Optimize times when you are together (e.g., walking home from soccer practice) to gauge their reactions.
  • Some kids aren't comfortable talking about their feelings or are too young to vocalize them. Allow them space to think and process it but leave the door wide open to discuss it.
  • If your child seems visibly upset do watch for signs of trauma such as sleep or eating issues, nightmares, being overly worried about school, and focusing on death. If it is prolonged you may want to seek help."

We're wondering: What resources have you found helpful? At school today, did your kids' teachers talk about last Friday's events? Are you comfortable with your school's safety protocol? Do you know what it is?

Please share in comments below.

The National Association of School Psychologists -- Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers
American Psychological Association - Helping Your Children Manage Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting
American Academy of Pediatrics - Resources to Help Parents, Children and Others Cope in the Aftermath of School Shootings
The National Association of School Psychologists -- A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry - Children and Grief
Massachusetts General Hospital for Children - Talking To Children About A Shooting
Child Mind Institute - Caring For Kids After A School Shooting
http://urj.org/learning/forparents/?syspage=article&item_id=95420
Last modified on Thursday, 03 January 2013 10:47

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