The shooting in Newtown, Connecticut has stopped us all in our tracks. As the story devoloped, every new piece of information made the story more heartbreaking. An elementary school, Kindergarten through grade 4 – children 5 to 10 years old. A shooter dressed in fatigues with multiple weapons. The death toll kept climbing – twenty children and six adults. All of this just days before Christmas. It’s incomprehensible. If we can’t process the tragedy as adults, how can we possibly talk to our children about it?
The first thing to note is that no there’s no formula, no right or wrong way to address such monumental questions. “What matters is that children know that this is something we can talk about … that it’s safe to talk about,” says child psychologist Gabrielle Roberts. Let your children take the lead and allow them to guide the conversations. Ask a simple question like “What happened in school today?” to get them started.
Kiwi Commons offers the following Trauma Management Strategies to help you work through these events with your child:
Use Developmentally-Appropriate Language: As when discussing any sensitive topic with your children, keep in mind what is appropriate for their age and maturity. Particularly because this event happened at a school, a place where children should feel safe and because the victims are their peers, children will ask questions. They don’t need details, but they may hear things from other kids, TV or the internet so answer honestly.
Be Supportive: As with adults who have experienced trauma, remember that the effects may not manifest immediately. Watch for signs of regression like bed-wetting or temper tantrums. Children may also become clingier while others may withdraw. Chief medical correspondent for CNN Dr. Sanjay Gupta advises parents to monitor sleep habits as it can be a powerful predictor of how the child is processing the experience. It’s important to note we store trauma in the non-verbal areas of brain, so children, especially as young as some of the children at Sandy Hook, may not have the words to express what they saw or how they are feeling. We have emotions before we have words so encourage your children to draw, paint, or sing – whatever will allow them to process their experience.
Filter What They See: There is a big difference between talking to your child about the death of a peer and allowing them to see panicked children running from the school or a grieving parent weeping over the horror of the shooter and his arsenal of weapons. Limit their exposure to media and be vigilant about conversations with other adults in front of them.
Stay Calm: Your children can read your emotions so it’s important to stay calm while you have these conversations. While it’s appropriate to let your child see you mourn, try not to let your own horror at these events transfer to the child. They need to know grieving is normal but they also need to see your strength and resolve to move forward. This is a good time to make a Family Emergency Plan if you don’t already have one. Getprepared.gc.ca has an excellent video you can watch with your child to create a plan. Knowing that the family has a strategy in place in case of an emergency can give your child some much needed security at a time like this.
Maintain Your Routine: Although things may not feel “normal” for a long time, most children find routines reassuring. Get back into that comfort zone as soon as possible. Your temptation may be to keep children by your side but this communicates a sense of insecurity to the child. Allowing them to go back to school, back to day care, gives them the confidence that the adults around them are actively working to keep them safe.
Don’t Make Promises: Clearly, we cannot promise our children that nothing like this will happen to them. Again, discuss your Family Emergency Plan so your child feels empowered if you aren’t together during a crisis. Remind your child that schools have safety protocols like fire drills in place so that in case of an emergency, teachers and students will know exactly what to do.
“While this horrible thing happened, look at how many children were taken care of because the teachers didn’t overreact,” says Dr. Joanne Plescia, Director of Special Services for the Collingswood Public School District in NJ. “If you look at the specifics from the incident in Connecticut, they did what they were trained to do.”
Talk about the Heroes: In the coming days as the details unfold, we’ll hear more and more about the heroes at Sandy Hook Elementary. Men like the custodian who ran through the halls warning of the shooter, and teacher Maryrose Kristopik who “barricaded” her class in a cupboard and calmed them while the shooter banged on the classroom door. Remind your child there are far more people like Maryrose in the world than there are people like the shooter.
Your primary job as a parent in the coming days is to watch and to listen. Watch for signs of the trauma to manifest, listen for indications your child is ready to talk. Most of all follow the example set by President Obama: “hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another.”
Image source: The Times