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?”