Newtown: Helping Children Understand

December 18, 2012 by John Oliver

We all know what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, December 14th. There's no need to repeat the horrifying details of one of the deadliest school shootings the world has ever seen.

As more and more details surrounding the massacre come in to focus, we will inevitably start a national conversation on topics ranging from gun control to mental health to school safety. These are big, complex, and divisive conversations that may divide families, communities and the nation as a whole.

Before we get lost in these very important debates, it's crucial that we take a step back and consider the impact these difficult-to-understand events have on children. If adults are struggling to comprehend the violence that occurred in Newtown, how can we possibly expect children to make sense of things? Because so many of our readers are parents, teachers, child care providers and child safety advocates, we wanted to try and provide some level of support in dealing with these difficult topics.

Because I am not trained in counseling parents and teachers how to address these difficult issues with children, I chose to gather advice from experts that I think might be helpful if you’re looking for a place to start.

A Strong Case for Starting the Conversation

You may be on the fence about whether or not to discuss the Sandy Hook shooting at all. In the past, when we've discussed topics like the choking "game", we often hear parents and teachers say something like, "Well what if they didn't know about it yet, and I'm the one that put the idea in their head?" This reaction is understandable; no one wants to be responsible for instilling fear into a child's mind.

I really like the case made by Cheri Lovre in Talking to Your Students Following the Sandy Hook School Shooting (PDF):

If we don’t bring it up, we don’t know what our students do or don’t know. They ride the bus together, they walk to school, they’re on the playground together and see one another at outside events. Even if their parents haven’t told them about this event, there is always the possibility – or the likelihood – that other students have. When the students are only talking about it amongst themselves, we have no opportunity to help them process the event. Kids make up stories to fill in the blanks, and with events such as these, those can become huge stories.

Especially when something is out-of-the-ordinary, our students are often very “loyal” to our unspoken messages. So if we don’t bring it up, they have to make up reasons why that might be. Some may think that our not bringing it up means we don’t think it is important. Some may have parents or others in their lives that never talk about difficult issues, so they’ve grown to expect that, when times are tough, they’re on their own. Yet other students may assume we’re not bringing it up because we are too overwhelmed to provide them support, so we’re hoping they’ll stay quiet. Kids are kids… they make up stories to fill in the blanks.

Tell the Truth

When choosing to have a difficult conversation with a child the number one rule is to never lie. Regardless of the child's age, it is important that your responses are always sincere and truthful. Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, a pediatrician and health journalist says in Should You Tell Your Kids About Newtown?:

If they come home and ask you about it, no matter what age they are, tell them the truth. If they're 4 or 6 or 8 and they ask 'was there a school shooting and did people die?' Your answer has to be yes.

Cheri Lovre adds to that advice and says:

Always tell the truth. How much you say and how much detail you give is open to judgment, but don’t tell lies. Better to say, “I’m not sure what to say to that…” or “Let me think on that a little,” than to be dishonest.

Choose developmentally appropriate language and detail (less detail the younger the child).

Ask Questions and Listen

This may be the most difficult part of having a conversation with your child about the Sandy Hook shootings or other traumatic events. You need to listen. Avoid the urge to interupt a child or redirect their understanding too quickly. You can't help a child understand until you know exactly how they're approaching the issue.

This is fantastic advice from Cheri Lovre directed at teachers, but I think you'll agree that this advice is wonderful for parents as well.

It is when youth begin to reveal their emotions or reactions that adults often unintentionally cut them off or redirect the conversation. This is when you have to work hard not to meet your own needs. Often, if students say they’re scared, we rush to reassure them that the person who did this is dead. But what we really need to do is to give them the opportunity to go deeper. “Tell me more about that,” is a great way to make room for more exploration. Resist the temptation to give your student your own reassurances YET! There will be time for that.

Other questions that might help them go deeper could be:

  • What do you think worries other kids?
  • Are there times you’ve been worried about something like this before?
  • What are others saying about it?
  • Are there other feelings your have besides [whatever feelings they labeled]?

Control the Conversation

Just as a child shouldn't be receiving their current events lessons from other kids on the playground, it's never a good idea to let a young child get all of their information from the media. Consider this advice from Parenting.com:

Monitor the media intake for everyone in the family. Even if you only watch CNN when the kids are in bed, there's the chance they may not be able to get to sleep and can hear the newscaster, the interviews. Coverage of events like this can range from incredibly tactful to incredibly sensational. Be aware of who is watching what around the home, says O'Keeffe. That goes for grown-ups too. "You don't need to watch the news 24/7," she adds. "That creates overanxeity in all of us. Resist that temptation. Go about your life. That's the best thing you can do to honor these people."

End with a Note of Hope

After you've had this difficult conversation it's important that you end on a note of hope. Reassure the child you're speaking with that they're still very safe. Let the child know that you care about them deeply and that you'll make every effort to protect them.

As hard as it may be, do your best to find the positive outcomes of tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. For example, communities all across the world are coming together to support one another and those impacted in Newtown.

What's Worked for You?

Have you spoken with your kids about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary? Have you ever spoken to a child about losing a close family member or pet? Perhaps you've chatted about a devastating natural disaster? In any of these cases, what worked well for you? What do you wish you would have done differently?

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