What Do We Tell Our Children?

BY News Desk  December 16, 2012 at 9:30 PM EST

Listening to the PresidentChildren hold stuffed animals during a vigil held at Newtown High School Sunday. One way parents can support their children in a time of stress is by helping them to participate in their normal routine as much as possible. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

By Stephen E. Brock, Ph.D., NCSP

I am the father of two wonderful children who are products of a public school system that has kept them safe and taught them many valuable lessons beyond simply how to read, write, add and subtract. I am also a school psychologist who has worked in public education my entire career and given special emphasis to how we can help children cope with distressing events.

First, as I struggled to talk with my own children about this event, I turned to the guidance I give others, which is that our job as adults is to be present, reassuring, observant and loving. Children need to know their parents are ready and willing to talk to them. They need to know that if they have questions, their parents will do their best to answer them. At the same time, it is essential that we let their questions be our guide. We need to be prepared to share difficult information if they ask. However, if we give them more details than they need, we run the risk of unnecessarily frightening them. We can address their concerns by helping them see the positive things they and others can do to overcome a tragedy and help make a difference.

We also need to reassure our children that they are safe and that schools are, as a rule, very safe places. What happened at Sandy Hook was extraordinarily rare, and while horrible and tragic beyond words, it is most unlikely to occur at their school. We can help them understand the difference between events that could possibly happen and events that will probably happen. We can also remind them about the steps their school, as well as their family, take to keep them safe.

Another essential piece of the parenting puzzle in the aftermath of an event such as the Sandy Hook shootings is to carefully monitor TV and Internet habits, our children’s as well as our own. Excessive viewing of media reports (including those offered by social media) is counterproductive. Instead of helping children to be more informed, it may result in them being more anxious. Young children in particular can be confused by hearing or seeing coverage and may think the shooting is happening again. Counter the news by helping your children to participate in their normal routine, as much as possible, and to engage with friends and in regular activities. This may require asking them to turn off their computers and put away their cell phones. As well, parents should turn off the radio in the car and the evening news in kitchen. When children see or hear news reports, parents should watch with them if possible and help them to a reality-based understanding (including reassuring them that these events are very rare and they are safe at school).

Limiting the news is good for parents, too, because we are deeply impacted as well. Wrapping one’s mind around the tragic loss of so many young children is particularly difficult for parents. I am not surprised to hear from many of my fellow parents (and educators) how very upset they are. This raises two important points. First, we need to take care of ourselves physically and emotionally if we are going to take care of our children. We need to tap our own sources of support. Second, we can be honest with our children about feeling sad and being shocked, but if we are so upset that we anticipate losing emotional control, we may need to find other adults, such as a friend, relative or school staff member, who can help guide us through this event. Young children in particular may become frightened if they see a parent very upset.

Finally, reactions to tragic events vary from person to person but resilience is the norm. It is reasonable and appropriate for parents to expect that with time, talk and the support of adults, children will move on and return to their normal lives. If children do seem extremely upset or anxious and their reactions last for more than a week, parents should contact a mental health professional. Our children may never fully understand the depth of a tragedy like Sandy Hook, but they don’t need to. By modeling healthy coping as parents and striving to give them as normal a routine as possible (including going to school), our children will follow our lead and stay grounded in what is right in their lives rather than be overwhelmed by what can go wrong.

For further guidance from school psychologists on how to help children cope with school associated tragedies go to the National Association of School Psychologists website.

By Stephen E. Brock is a psychologist and professor of school psychology at California State University, Sacramento.

Have you talked with your child about trauma? Share your experience with us.