In the wake of a tragedy, such as the events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in late 2012, it can be difficult for parents and adults to know how to provide support to children. Our experts offer guidelines on how to have an appropriate and helpful conversation.
Parents and caregivers should spend time with their children and provide opportunities for conversation. Adults shouldn't be concerned that talking with children about the tragedy will upset them, but there are some basic guidelines on how to best do this.
Consider the age and developmental level of the child:
Very young children who are not likely to hear about the situation from others (siblings, friends, or peers at daycare) may not be aware of what took place and therefore may not need an adult to discuss it with them. If a parent or caregiver suspects that the child may hear something, then it is much better for the discussion to come from the parent or caregiver directly.
School age children who are likely to hear about it from other sources should hear from their parents or caregivers first if possible.
When speaking to school age children:
Follow their lead.
Younger children will often be satisfied with a few basic facts. Too many details may frighten and overwhelm them. If this is the case, parents should reassure them as best they can and then keep the door open for the child to initiate more conversation. If the child asks more questions, parents should give honest, simple answers. It's okay for an adult to say, "I don't know."
When speaking to teenagers:
When talking to teenagers, moral and ethical issues are likely to come up, so be prepared to have more complicated discussions with them about topics such as:
Why someone would do something like this?
Religious questions (ex: "How could God let something like this happen?")
What should happen to someone who does something like this?
Larger societal issue, such as gun control, etc.
How to handle emotions:
Remember that parents and caregivers are models for their children. If adults avoid the topic, it gives the message that we shouldn't discuss it, or that we are not able to.
It's okay for parents to cry and to model for children that we all have emotional reactions. This can help normalize the expression of emotion.
At the same time, parents and caregivers should pay attention to their own reactions. Adults who are overwhelmed or having difficulty functioning should get support first so they can be there for their children and reassure them.
When talking to children of any age, it is important to remind them that events such as this school shooting in Connecticut are extremely rare!
When to be concerned:
It is important to keep in mind that when something of this magnitude occurs, some level of emotional reaction is to be expected. This will vary by individual. Normal reactions may include:
Tearfulness and sadness
Clinginess or a need for increased reassurance
Upsetting or frightening dreams
Some separation anxiety
In most cases, some reassurance, support and sticking to normal routines and structure will be enough to help children cope following a tragedy.
If a child is not responding to the above, or if their academic or social functioning is impaired, the parent or caregiver may want to consider consulting with a child mental health professional.
The Child Study Center is part of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), whose mission is to raise the standard of care and improve access to services for traumatized children, their families and communities throughout the United States. One the right you will find a printable version of this article followed by a series of NCTSN resources that the organization has gathered to support families in the wake of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The Child Study Center's Stress Trauma and Resilience Team will be hosting an interactive group workshop entitled, "Helping Children Cope: Talking to Your Kids About Sandy Hook" on Thursday, December 20th, 2012. Find more information here.