In the aftermath of the horrific events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week I felt it important to address how we as parents can help our kids process what happened to the 20 beautiful children and 6 teachers that lost their lives in this unimaginable tragedy. Our first instinct, as parents, is to shield our kids from what we may believe is too much for them to deal with. We may be afraid that talking about what happened may unnecessarily bring this event into their awareness, or cause excessive anxiety or panic. The reality is that our children already know. This event has not only dominated national news but has stuck a chord with every parent, in every country around the world. The world is truly in mourning and talking about it. As a result, it is difficult to stop our kids from being exposed, and with all the coverage and outlets available today through the internet and social media we can no longer expect to be able to fully protect our children’s innocence or shelter them from the harsh truth of what some human beings are capable of doing. So, we must take charge.
Put time aside: The age of your child will largely decide if you initiate a conversation about the shooting. It is unlikely that your preschooler, and possibly even your early elementary age children are aware of what happened and, if they are, may not really be able to fully comprehend or connect with the gravity of what is going on. If you are confident that they are unaware about what happened then hold off for now, but pay close attention. If you see any changes in behavior, don’t ignore it and ask your child if there is something making them sad. If you have a late elementary, junior high or high school age child, create an opportunity to talk with your them about what happened. Approach you child at a quiet time and ask him or her if they have heard the news or if their friends have been talking about, ” something very sad that happened in a school in Connecticut.” If they have, then ask what they know and listen carefully. Don’t assume that if your kids haven’t mentioned the shootings that they don’t know about it, or don’t have feelings about it.
Respond with calmness and re-assurance: Unlike adults, children are more easily overwhelmed by information that they don’t understand and have less effective strategies about gathering information that helps them make sense of what happened. It would not be unusual for your child to hear about what happened at Sandy Hook and, depending on his or her age, think that it happened, or is going to happen at their school. The average child’s world-view is limited to what they know, so when something like this happens it hits very close to home, and seems more of an immediate threat to their safety. This can obviously cause a lot of anxiety and manifest itself physically with stomach aches or headaches and could result in school refusal or avoidance. As your child tells you what they know, stay calm, correct any misconceptions and re-assure your child that he or she is safe both at school and at home.
Keep in mind the age of your child as you provide information. For example, with your elementary age child you will want to keep it simple and say, “there are some people in the world that do very bad things, but the person that did this can no longer do those bad things to anyone else. You are safe in your school and in your home, and you don’t need to worry that this will happen to you.” With your junior high or high school child you may want to go into more details and help them recognize how small the odds are that something like that would happen at their school. You may want to engage them in conversations about the safety procedures that are in place within the school to protect them, what to do in an emergency situation and even discuss gun laws and mental health issues associated with this tragedy. Help empower them by giving them the tools to make sense of what happened and alleviate any anxiety or fears.
Watch the news in moderation: Although we need the details in order process and grieve the events at Sandy Hook, every time we see one of the parents breakdown in tears as they talk to the media about the child they lost or hear a story of one of the teachers throwing herself in front of her children to try and protect them, we put ourselves in their shoes and we grieve as if they were our own. These evoke powerful reactions in all of us and creates real trauma every time we go through it. It is the same for our children, only they can’t process it as effectively as we can. Limit the time you have the news on in the house when the kids are around. Wait until the kids are in school, at practice or in bed.
Words cannot describe the horrors that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary and what the families of those 26 people that lost their lives must be going through. Most of us do not know the children or teachers that lost their lives or know their families, but we as a nation and as a world, grieve the loss to our very core. It is important that we allow our grieving process to run its course and then allow ourselves to get back into a routine as soon as possible. However, as adults, we have a duty to solve this problem and push for real change in gun laws and how we screen for mental illness among those that seek out, or have access to firearms. This is a national crisis and we must all ask ourselves what we can do to help solve it. Our children are dying and something has to change. As you hug your children tight and tuck them into bed tonight, keep those parents who lost their children in mind. Honor them by cherishing these times with your children and by making every moment count.