The tragic event  that took place on December 14th at Sandy Hook Elementary claimed the lives of 26 individuals, 20 of whom were children. Most of us, especially those of us who are parents, may experience a variety of emotions, from shock, disbelief, and confusion to, grief, loss, fear, and anxiety.  Although such feelings are a normal part of the grieving process, it is important to realize that our children will look to us to help them understand and cope with their feelings of distress. You play a crucial role in helping to reassure your child and make them feel safe and secure. This is true for children of all ages – from early childhood to adolescence.

Here are some strategies on how to talk to your child, and help them successfully manage their feelings of distress:

  • Before talking to your child, reassure yourself first.  Although you are only human, and are entitled to your own feelings of anxiety and distress, try to keep them at bay when talking with your child. Remember, modeling is one of the most powerful ways to affect (either positively or negatively) your child’s sense of security and safety. Your tone, facial expressions, words, and behavior all need to communicate a very important message…. “ I know you may be worried, but I am confident that you will be OK”.
  • Invite your child to talk about his/her feelings . Whatever feelings your child expresses, normalize them so they don’t’ feel unique or unusual for having them.  Empathize, and be a good listener.  Try to communicate understanding of his feelings without joining him in his fear or anxiety. Try not to inadvertently make judgmental comments. For example, if your child is not directly affected by this incident, he may express indifference, or simply appear neutral. No need to press for a more meaningful reaction, or attempt to impress upon him the ‘gravity’ of the situation. Every child is different and for many children, a little emotional distance from such a traumatic situation can be a very adaptive response.
  • Reassure your child that violence is not a normal part of school. This is of utmost importance, especially to the younger child who does not have the perspective to understand (statistically) how truly uncommon a school shooting is. (Yes, we adults have heard of more than one in our lifetimes, but in terms of the hundreds of thousands (no, millions) of schools out there …over the course of decades who have NOT had a school shooting, the probability of one happening at your child’s school is less than .0000000001 percent!) At a developmentally appropriate level, simply explain to your child how there are competent and responsible people in charge at her school, and how she is in a very safe and secure place.
  • Keep the information you share with your child developmentally appropriate. For young children, there is no need to embellish with details of the incident. In fact, the less they know the better. Be honest, but simple, and be quick to reassure.
  • Limit your child’s media exposure. This is especially important for the younger child. Think of media coverage as rated PG-13. There is no need for a child younger than 13 to be exposed to news stories, many of which show grieving families and/or eye witnesses retelling their experiences. This can be very difficult for a young child who may not have the ability to understand what they see and hear. If older children and adolescents are interested in watching TV, be prepared to talk with them about how these images affect them, and how it made them feel. Try to encourage older children not to discuss the details of what they saw and heard in front of younger siblings.
  • In order to combat feelings of helplessness, invite your child to help others. Sometimes being active in helping others can combat feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that your child may be experiencing. Ask your child if he wishes to send something to the grieving families such as writing a letter, or sending a card. Alternatively, offer to take your child to a community agency to help another family or community that needs support.
  • Allow your child to resume normal activities without feeling guilty. Some children may want to get right back into the swing of things, and that is OK.  It’s important to have balance, and if your child is telling you she is ready to resume her routine, then allow her to do so.
  • If your child is blissfully unaware of the events of last week, do not feel obligated to tell him.  This tip speaks for itself. You are not doing your child any favors by letting him in on the news. As children grow older, in due time, they will come to be aware of the many tragedies and violent situations that occur around the globe. The older a child is, and the less ‘close to home’ these situations are, the more they are able to make sense of them, and talk about them in a meaningful way with you. There is no need to rush this emotional developmental process along by bringing a traumatic incident such as this one into their lives prematurely.
  • If you have any concerns about your child’s emotional well-being, or if he/she is exhibiting any significant changes in mood, behavior, academic or social functioning, consult your child’s school psychologist or obtain a consultation with a therapist or counselor.  A trained professional will be better able to assess your child, and help provide tools to help them through the grieving process.

If you have any questions about your child, or additional thoughts, please drop me a line….

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Deb