Due to the recent tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., parents and teachers may be faced with the challenge of discussing this difficult subject with young children.
Credit: Photo courtesy of David Fassler, M.D.
Dr. Fassler offers the following suggestions for these discussions:
1) Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions. It’s best not to force children to talk about things unless and until they’re ready.
2) Give children honest answers and information.Children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you’re “making things up.” It may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future.
3) Use words and concepts children can understand.Gear your explanations to the child’s age, language, and developmental level, and be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard for them to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance.
4) Acknowledge and validate the child’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate.
Remember that children tend to personalize situations; they may worry about their own safety or the safety of friends or siblings when going to school.
5) Let children know that lots of people are helping the families affected by the recent shooting.
6) Children learn from watching their parents. They are very interested in how you respond to local and national events. They also learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.
7) Don’t let children watch too much news coverage with frightening images. The repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing. Children who have experienced trauma or losses in the past are particularly vulnerable to prolonged or intense reactions to news or images of violent incidents. These children may need extra support and attention.
8) Make sure that children who are preoccupied with ongoing questions or concerns about safety get evaluated by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Other signs that a child may need additional help include sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts or worries, or recurring fears about death, leaving parents, or going to school. If these behaviors persist, ask your child’s pediatrician, family physician, or school counselor to help arrange an appropriate referral.
9) Although parents may follow the news with close scrutiny,most children just want to be children. They may not want to think about or discuss violent events. They’d rather play ball, climb trees, or ride bikes.
10) Senseless, violent crime is not easy for anyone to comprehend or accept. Understandably, some young children may feel frightened or confused. As parents, teachers and caring adults, we can best help by listening and responding in an honest, consistent, and supportive manner.
As the nation watches the reports about the recent Connecticut school shooting, many people may find themselves feeling anxious, worried, saddened or otherwise concerned.
While adults may know how to express these feelings, often they do not know how to talk with children about the way the children are feeling.
David Schonfeld, MD, Director, National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center provides the following tips to help adults talk with children about the shooting.
• Talk about the event with your child. Silence isn’t comforting in crisis situations and suggests that what has occurred is too horrible to even speak of. After a major crisis, even very young children have likely already heard what has happened – but they may not understand what it means.
• Start by asking your child what he or she has already heard about the events and what questions or concerns they have. Listen for misinformation, misconceptions and any underlying fears or concerns. If the child expresses worries, sadness or fears, tell them what adults are doing to keep them safe but don’t provide false reassurance or dismiss their concerns. Help them identify strategies to cope with difficult feelings.
• Minimize your child’s exposure to media (television, radio, print, internet, social media) and if they do watch, consider recording, screening and watching with them. Remember children often overhear or see what you are watching on TV or listening to on the radio and may be exposed directly as the news evolves through the internet or social media. While children may seek and benefit from basic information about what happened so that they can understand what is happening in their world, they (and adults) don’t benefit from graphic details or exposure to disturbing images or sounds. In the aftermath of a crisis is a good time to disconnect from all media and sit down together and talk as a family.
• Encourage your child to ask questions now and in the future, and answer the questions directly. Like adults, children are better able to cope with a crisis if they feel they understand it. Question-and-answer exchanges provide you with the opportunity to offer support as your child begins to understand the crisis and the response to it.
• Share your feelings about the shooting with your child and the strategies you have used to cope with your concerns, sadness, or other difficult feelings. If you feel overwhelmed and/or hopeless, look for some support from other adults before reaching out to your child.
• Reassure the child that feeling sad, worried or angry is okay. Let your child know that it is all right to be upset about something bad that happened. Use the conversation to take the opportunity to talk about other troubling feelings your child may have.
• Don’t feel obligated to give a reason for what happened. Although adults often feel the need to provide a reason for why someone committed such a crime, many times they
don’t know. It is okay to tell your child that you don’t know why at this time such a crime was committed.
• If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, contact his or her pediatrician, other primary care provider, or a qualified mental health care specialist.
For information on how to help your children cope with crises or disasters, please visit the website for the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement atwww.cincinnatichildrens.org/school-crisis.
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