As the nation watches the reports about the recent Connecticut school shooting, many people may find themselves feeling anxious, worried, saddened or otherwise concerned. While adults may know how to express these feelings,often they do not know how to talk with children about the way the children are feeling. David Schonfeld, MD, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, provides the following tips to help adults talk with children about the shooting:
For information on how to help your children cope with crises or disasters, please visit the website for the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at www.cincinnatichildrens.org/school-crisis.
About Cincinnati Children’s
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center ranks third in the nation among all Honor Roll hospitals in U.S. News and World Report’s 2012 Best Children’s Hospitals ranking. It is ranked #1 for neonatology and in the top 10 for all pediatric specialties. Cincinnati Children’s is one of the top two recipients of pediatric research grants from the National Institutes of Health, and a research and teaching affiliate of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. The medical center is internationally recognized for improving child health and transforming delivery of care through fully integrated, globally recognized research, education and innovation. Additional information can be found at www.cincinnatichildrens.org.
December 24, 2012 (Updated)
Children, in their own discrete and different ways, are trying to understand the grossly irrational violence that ravaged our state in Newtown. Many of us wonder how to talk to them about it.
There are four circles of families to consider: 1) those in Newtown who lost a child, friend, neighbor, or school leader; 2) those next-door to Newtown who knew someone impacted or killed, or who felt the impact like an earthquake; 3) those families around the state who want to help, connect, and heal the deaths with proper handling and words; and 4) those outside of our state who want to help and heal this loss both at home and in a community way.
After spending the last two weeks with children and families in Newtown, speaking with parents in other parts of our state, and working with national experts on school disasters, I offer a few steps to consider. These steps might be of use wherever you live in our state.
Be steady and loving. Assure your children that you will protect them.
Know how you feel. Get yourself to a relative calm when you talk to your children, so your own fears and anxiety do not become theirs.
Measure what and how to tell. The age of your child makes a difference in what you tell.. Young children may need to know a bad man hurt people and realized his behavior was so bad that he took himself far away. Older children may wish to discuss the moral and unfair nature of this tragedy. For example, a few 10- to 14-year-olds discussed together, with adults, what they think happens after death. It was comforting for them.
Listen to your children and pay attention to what they know and what they want to know. Their questions will change as each day and week unfolds. Let their questions guide your content each day.
Turn off the television. Too much repetitive imagery of a disaster has proven to harm both children and parents. It allows the incident to repeat itself, reigniting emotions like a constant charger.
Keep a normal routine. Do whatever it was you were going to do today. Provide children with what they understand as normal, day-to-day living.
Assure your children, if they ask about school safety, that schools are safe places for learning. This sort of incident is very rare and unlikely to occur again.
Lock up all ammunition, if you have any. Always keep firearms locked and away from children, youth, and young adults.
Pray if prayer is something you do together. Access whatever spiritual or natural field you utilize to reach perspective, depth, and wholeness. Children have drawnpictures and written letters to their lost and beloved principal, in hopes that she will read them or that God would read them to her.
Give to community in ways that comfort your children. Help out at a school or in a neighborhood, to demonstrate your family value of strong community. A family of six came from the northern part of our state to Newtown to give flowers and paint beautiful paintings for the walls. A high school senior said, "I couldn't stay away any longer. I had to be here."
Honor humility. You do not have to have all the answers for your children. It is fine to say you do not know. Maybe over time, there will be more to understand and you will share that then.
It is OK to show some emotion and to share a few of your concerns. Children know when parents are hiding their feelings-they sense the dissonance. Just base what you share on the age and needs of your child.
Watch and listen, in your own style. If you see continuing or new signs of your child being upset, seek assistance from a school or community counselor. Our children respond in different ways. Some may worry in a way that would benefit from short-term professional support. Signs might include sleeplessness, a change in eating habits, articulated fear of school, repetitive behavior that is new, a feigned illness to miss school days, loss of bladder or bowel control, or nightmares.
Children may feel the need for extra protection right now. They sense the reeling response of adults and community and are concerned for their own safety. The best protection is nurturance, a return to normalcy, play, and routine. Some children are locking their doors, sharing bedrooms with adults and older siblings to have someone closer to them at night.
If you find yourself upset in a way you cannot master, short-term counseling or group discussions may help. No parent should be expected to handle this without conversation and support. Other parents' questions and concerns may help you.
Know that one tragedy can trigger memories of previous losses or fears. Don't be surprised if something that took place a while ago emerges like a jack-in-the-box. Let it in and talk about it. It's just an earlier experience returning for a tune-up.
Protection is important, but not always so easy. With social media, children see and hear more than we think. Even the very young have access to details that might surprise us. Ask your children in a relaxed, but routine manner, what they are hearing and prepare to be in step with them. A second grader in a Connecticut town far removed from the shootings, whose parents tried to protect him from the content, asked upon coming home from school, "Do you think we were not allowed to go outside today because of the shooter in Newtown?"
Children may blame themselves. It may be easier for them to do that than to realize there are some things no parent or school could possibly control. "Is this my fault?" Some children expressed concern that their lost friends did not hide fast or well enough, in the face of the violence.
Provide constancy. Children need to see that everything else they cherished before the violence-from stuffed animals and pets to family and neighbors-remains safe.
Consider open-ended questions about the day, in a relaxed tone. They will help you gauge the new information your child has acquired and is trying to master. You can then guide, nurture and correct misinformation.
Understand what your school will do to protect your children. Learn about new or revised school protocols. Request parent briefings so you understand and can calmly talk to your child and assure him or her about school safetyParents, throughout the state, want to know how schools can keep strangers out. Many children were in lock-downs the day of the shooting. Some saw their windows closed and taped with fabric; others were confined to classrooms for long periods without being told why. This was important protection, but it did trouble some students.
Give correct facts. Children have a great deal of misinformation that they believe is truth. A kindergardner came home very scared from school in a town far away from Newtown. He heard that children in his middle school had been killed.
Children see, even with their eyes closed. Presume they know more than you think or imagine.
Most children will talk when they are ready to talk. Pushing them into discussion won't work. Creating warm, caring environments with play and normal, fun, activities will help them relax and work on what they need to work on.
Honor heroes and heroic acts. Many teachers and school staff-as well as children-showed bravery. Talk about these acts and link them to a sense of community, strong family bonds, and values. Children and youth, in different ways, are moved by strong community and leaps of courage.
Here on our website you'll find some articles and some resources. Some might be useful to you as a parent, as a school teacher or as a storyteller. You are the most important messenger for your children now. Honor yourself, your voice, and your spirit.
Elaine Zimmerman, LCSW
Connecticut Commission on Children