How to talk to your children about school shootings

Parenting expert Alyson Schafer offers tips on how to talk to your children about the tragic event in Newtown, Conn.

By Alyson Schafer, parenting expert
How to talk to your children about school shootings

Photo: MariaPavlova/iStockphoto

We were all shocked by the mass shooting of innocent children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. While the police investigate the events and motives that led to this horrific crime, we parents are left to not only deal with our own emotions, but also to help our children make sense of this tragedy. Here is some of what I have been sharing with parents through the various media outlets…

What kids need to know:

  • Parents need to decide how much their children should know about this event. That decision should be made based on the child’s age, the likelihood of their learning about the events independently, and whether this is a personal or community event rather than world news or current events.
  • If you have a young child living outside the community affected, and it's unlikely they will hear about this event through peers or social media, I say don’t mention it at all. They don’t need their world view shattered.
  • If you have children in the Connecticut area, they will likely know something terrible has happened. Things just won’t be normal. Adults are crying, stores are closed, flags are flying at half mast. Parents need to tell their children something is amiss, otherwise they will be forced to make sense of these changes on their own — and who knows what they’ll decide without proper information. Likewise, if your children are older and on Facebook or Twitter, you can bet they know. Let’s face it, with social media, information travels so fast now. But so does misinformation.

The bottom line: I wish your children didn’t hear about this event, but, if they are going to, you have to be their ally in making sense of the news.

What parents should say:

That is the questions on everyone’s mind. Parents know best what their own child can handle. There is a range of sensitivities in children and only a parent knows their child well enough to know what they can handle. The rules you need to apply are as follows:

  • Be truthful. No lies. You can omit information, you can say you don’t know, you can make sweeping general comments, but don’t give misinformation. Why? Because if you do, your children will eventually find out and you will have eroded their trust in you, something they desperately need, especially in times such as these.
  • Only share what they need to know and can manage emotionally. Watch as you talk to see if they are coping with the information. If they say “stop” or look visibly disturbed, follow their cues. You can re-visit the issue later or lighten up the version of the message you are sharing.

Here are some examples of variations on the essential message that show various levels of disclosure. Of course there are also nuances in between too.

  • “There was a great tragedy in a little town far away. Many children died unexpectedly, so everyone is sad.”
  • “There was a terrible tragedy in a town in Newtown, Connecticut in the United States. Many children were killed unexpectedly by a gunman who then shot himself. Everyone is in shock and grieving.”
  • “There was a terrible tragedy. Twenty children and six teachers were shot and killed in their school by a young gunman who was not in his right mind. He was someone who was mentally ill, and he went on a rampage. He shot his mother at home and then broke into the school she taught at and fired into two classrooms before killing himself. That’s all we know at the moment. It is a shocking freak incident, and we are trying learn why and how this could have happened."

Regardless of which “version” you think your child is capable of handling, be sure to also listen to what they are making of the events. Children can connect the dots in very interesting ways, like:  “I was really mean to Jesse at recess yesterday; I guess that is why they shot him.” Imagine if your child thought such a thing and you didn’t know? We need to hear what they are thinking so we can correct such faulty ideas.

Lastly, we have to help our children retain their belief that people are good and life is safe. To do so, we need to explain how rare and freakish this event is. We need to instead shine a spotlight on all the hundreds and thousands of acts of heroism and kindness that our fellow community members have made. He was one shooter, but almost everyone has shown loving kindness, is reaching out, is helping families, and showing support. The teachers, doctors, police and more all did wonderful things!

This also provides a chance to ask our children, “What would you like to do?” By writing a card, drawing a picture, making a donation, sending a teddy bear, lighting a candle at home, or saying a prayer, we show our children how they can care for others too. This helps empower them so they don’t feel simply like passive victims of life events. It is part of the healing process. We all have to make meaning from the events — parents and children alike.

So, let’s count our blessings and hug our children tonight.

This article was originally published on Dec 17, 2012

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