Q: What reactions can I expect from my children in the wake of the events in Newtown, Conn., and how can I discuss this horrible tragedy with them?
A: The shooting deaths of 20 young children and six school staffers have left the nation confused, emotional and raw. And yet, as a parent, you are responsible for helping your children deal with their feelings about these horrific events. You can expect children to react in different ways. Some will never raise the topic with you, even though they know about it. Others will try to convince you that they can protect you and that they will “take down” anyone who tries to hurt their world. Some children will over-focus on it and others will seem fine now, but a few weeks later something will act as a trigger for their feelings, questions and fears. Here’s what you need to consider when helping your children process a tragic event like this.
First, although the shootings in Connecticut happened in an environment similar to one that millions of children experience every day, there is no reason for your children to feel unsafe in their daily lives. Because children under the age of 12 are more prone to irrational thoughts and magical thinking, they will need more reassurance on this point. Children benefit from the belief that there is a sense of order and control in the world; they cannot easily tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. When addressing your children’s fears, try to manage your own conflicting emotions, allowing them to experience their own feelings, separate from yours. Your message — through words, body language and tone — is clear and simple: “Yes, it happened and bad things happen, but you are safe and we are safe.”
If your child has not raised the subject with you, expect that they will hear about it somehow. You should address it with them. Simply say, “I do not know if you heard about the incident at a school in Connecticut last week — did you?”
Find out what your children know first, before you tell them more. If they know the facts, ask if they have any questions and move on. If they say they know nothing about it, simply tell them some children were hurt in school last week in a neighboring state and you wanted to talk with them about it because you think they will hear about it. As a parent, keep your focus on your children, not the incident. If your children appear to be acting the way they normally do, then there is nothing more to discuss right now.
Some children who tend to be more anxious may ruminate on the event or have frequent questions. They may not be able to put the topic to rest. Reassure them by repeating that they are safe. However, you also need to ask yourself whether there is something else your child is worried about. Anxious children tend to bind their anxiety to negative world events, like the tragedy in Connecticut. If this is the case with your child, focus on finding out what your child’s worries are and what is behind them. You do this by watching and listening. Are certain events triggers for their anxiety, such as an upcoming test (performance anxiety) or the fear of your neighbor’s dog (potential phobia)? If the anxiety is generally present, but waxes and wanes with the presence of life stressors (going to school, making daily transitions, trying new things, etc.), then it’s time to consider whether your child has a more general anxiety problem and ask your pediatrician about getting some help.
Be aware that there are some children who will not react now, but who will react in the future to last week’s events. Delayed reactions are not uncommon among worried children. In those cases, you can understand their focus on the event as a way for them to express their life stress or anxiety without addressing the real issues.
Parents do need guidance during this time of uncertainty. Think about helping your children in the following ways:
Find out what your children know.
Provide a brief overview of the event and provide reassurances regarding their safety.
Avoid gory details and exposure to sensationalized media coverage.
Stick to your daily routine, in spite of peaks and valleys of anxiety.
Finally, interpret your children’s lingering thoughts, questions and nightmares as a sign that something more immediately related to their life is causing their anxiety. Once you recognize this, you can provide them with help to address their anxiety.
Dr. Kate Roberts is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist with offices in Salem and South Hamilton. Her private practice helps parents, children and families develop strategies to work through and solve their problems. Contact her at 978-884-1213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.