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How to talk to children about the Sandy Hook shooting


Schonfeld said if children bring it up themselves, you can talk about what’s being done to keep them safe.

The killings at a Connecticut elementary school have left parents and educators struggling to figure out what to tell their children.

The international organization Save the Children, headquartered only 20 miles from where the killings occurred in Newtown, opened up a “child friendly space” in the community to give local children a place to play while their parents seek counseling and support.

The group said parents and other adults should listen to children carefully, reassure them, give them extra time and attention, be a model for them of sensitivity to others, and help them return to their normal routine.

Clergy members had similar advice for those who turned to them for help. Added Rev. Linda L. Grenz on the Episcopal Rhode Island Diocesan News website: “…if your child doesn’t want to talk about the events at all, they may not need to talk and you might just take a walk with them or read them a book or give them a hug to let them know you care.”

Whitney Finucane wasn’t sure how and when she would talk with her son, Nico, about the shooting. She kissed and hugged him when he came out from kindergarten at Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary in Providence, R.I., on Dec. 14.

“I don’t know how to explain insanity and evil to a 5-year-old,” she said. “I don’t know that he can really grasp it.”

Even the youngest schoolchildren are likely to hear about it, said Glenn Saxe, chairman of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center.

“It’s really important, especially at this time, for parents to check in with their kids, to be attuned to how they’re feeling, how they’re doing, and to answer questions honestly and straightforwardly,” he said. “For any other kid in school, this has meaning. Parents need to understand that even in surprising ways, this can affect their kids.”

Parents and educators can start by asking children what they’ve already heard and what questions they have, said Dr. David Schonfeld, a pediatrician and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. If they ask why someone would do something like this, it’s OK to say you don’t know.

“I wouldn’t provide false reassurance or dismiss legitimate concerns,” he said. “We don’t help children by telling them they shouldn’t be afraid of things that are frightening.”

See also:

After unspeakable tragedy, a search for answers

Leaders eye school safety plans after Connecticut attack

Could Sandy Hook shooting be a gun-control tipping point?

School safety resources from the eSN archives

Parents can tell their kids, “What is most important is that you’re safe and you’re going to be safe,” said Dr. Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Above all, adults need to try to help children feel safe, he said. Helping kids return to or maintain normal routines can help minimize their anxiety, Kraus said.

Some children might ask the same questions over and over as a way to seek reassurance, and parents and educators shouldn’t dismiss them, said Dr. David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt.

“Acknowledge and validate the child’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate,” he said.

Parents of young children should keep their children from hearing reports on TV, radio, and social media and to closely monitor exposure to media for all children, several experts said. Children who show persistent signs of anxiety and stress, including recurring nightmares or sleep problems and fears about leaving home, should see their pediatrician or a mental health expert, Kraus said.

While parents might feel the need to teach their children what do in such an emergency, the next few days is not the time to develop or bring up your family’s disaster preparedness or to teach your young children to dial 911, Saxe said.

“Right now, kids’ sense of safety and security is shattered,” Saxe said. “It’s very good parenting practice, in general, to have a kid know what to do in times of emergency, but it undermines the immediate message that you’re trying to convey.”

Schonfeld said if children bring it up themselves, you can talk about what’s being done to keep them safe.

As students head back to their classrooms on Dec. 17, parents and children should know that school shootings are rare and schools still are among the safest places, said William Lassiter of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence. Parents can ask their principal or parent-teacher group for a copy of their school crisis plan.

Notice whether schools stick to their own security plans, he said. Do people have to check in at the door and sign in at the front office, for example?

“A lot of times, the parents are the ones who need to remind the school,” he said.

See also:

After unspeakable tragedy, a search for answers

Leaders eye school safety plans after Connecticut attack

Could Sandy Hook shooting be a gun-control tipping point?

School safety resources from the eSN archives

Schools should have an emergency plan that is available to parents that explains what the school will do in various emergencies, such as a fire, hazardous materials spill, lockdown, or evacuation. It also should say how the school will communicate with the parents—for example, on its Twitter feed, Facebook page, website, or by eMail or automated phone call, said Kitty Porterfield, a spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators.

From the moment children start school, they are learning safety procedures such as lining up and following the teacher, she said. School districts in most major metropolitan areas also hold drills in which teachers and administrators practice what to do in a shooting or similar emergency. Most don’t involve children so that they aren’t upset, but some do, she said.

It’s natural for parents at a time like this to want to react to the Dec. 14 shooting with action, Schonfeld said, but giving young children a cell phone or keeping them out of school probably will not help.

“I know we really want to do everything we can to keep our kids safe,” he said. “You could put GPS tracking on them, bullet-proof vests. There’s a limit to what you can do.”

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