For the families in Newtown, Connecticut, the horrific tragedy of the Sandy Hook school massacre is still a shock that has only just begun to become real. Yet, families all over the country are also stunned by the senseless murders of young children and their school staff in a place where children are supposed to be safe.
How can we speak with our children about this tragedy and answer their questions, even when we, as adults, have so many of our own?
Sadly, the shootings in Newtown are a time when we are forced to teach our children and adolescents that there is evil in the world, and that some people choose to do bad things. Regardless of the words that may be used to describe the psychological condition of the shooter, he did something evil, and it is important that we acknowledge this to our children.
Children will respond differently to tragedy depending on their developmental level and personality. For young children who are fairly verbal, it’s important to first listen to the types of questions they ask, and then respond to them without overloading them with extra information or ideas they may not be ready to comprehend. In general, these children let us know what they’re thinking and feeling, so we often don’t end up wondering how they’re doing.
I tend to worry more about the kids who keep feelings and thoughts to themselves. Parents may need to ask these children their thoughts and feelings about what has happened. For some of these more introspective children, parents might also take a look at some of their drawings and doodles, or their writings to determine if these have changed since hearing about the news of the school shootings.
For adolescents, and even adults, who are upset by this tragedy, it could be helpful to point out that our response of horror, at what the shooter has done, is a good thing. Our shock and eventual anger mean that we are good people and that we know and expect most people to make good choices.
While children need to know that evil exists, they also need to feel reassured that they are safe. Let your child know that what happened in Newtown is very rare, and incidents like this won’t happen in most schools. Empower children by helping them to know that they have their own personal resources, such as their feelings, to tell them when a situation is unsafe. Remind children that it is important to tell adults at home and in school when they feel unsafe. For children who are particularly concerned about school safety, have them review the safety procedures they have been taught in school.
For many young children, words will not be as important as time spent with loving parents. A hug or extra snuggle will often be more reassuring than conversations. Expect some children to want to spend more time with parents than usual, and allow them to have that time. Similarly, regular, structured activities often give children a sense of comfort and routine that allows them to feel grounded.
Keep in mind that, in our 24-7 media world, the images of the school shooting scene, and the upcoming funerals for all the children who were killed, are, and will be, on television and online for days to come. Try to avoid exposing young children, in particular, to these images and reports, and limit the exposure of adolescents. Even adults are having difficulty watching the endless, and often repetitive, reports of the massacre as events unfold.
Signs of post-traumatic stress can occur even in children who have not directly experienced a tragedy like the Newtown shootings. Nightmares, changes in behavior, and anxiety about leaving home are not uncommon. Time spent with parents and siblings is most important to help ease anxiety. Seek the help of a professional who specializes in children and adolescents if anxiety does not decrease over time.
Last, but by no means least, talks with children about the school shootings are best done through the lens of your family’s spirituality and faith. Let your child know that her faith is there to help her in times of need. Take your family to a prayer vigil in your area for the victims of the shooting, or take time to pray at home with your children, even as part of a grace before meals. Parents who demonstrate that faith is a source of strength during difficult times are teaching their children an invaluable coping skill.
As the country moves past shock and begins grieving, we can remind ourselves that the pain we experience is a manifestation of the love we feel for the people we have lost. The grief that Americans encounter is a sign that we recognize the pain that families in Newtown are experiencing in the deaths of their young children and family members. In this sense, our suffering is not useless; instead it is a sign of our goodness and our unity with fellow Americans in need.