One of the most difficult conversations a parent may ever have with a young child is explaining why someone would enter a school and start shooting people. Even parents who have opted to not expose their children may face these conversations when their children hear about the shootings from classmates or their teachers.
Regional School Unit 1 in the Bath area circulated tips from the national Crisis Management Institute titled “Talking with Children and Students About the Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting.” The organization suggested the following:
• Turn off television coverage. Children can’t screen or in many cases, process a tragic event. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many younger children though that planes would continue to crash into buildings.
“Seeing graphic coverage gives children visuals that come back to them as dreams, and for some, flashbacks or a sense of hyper-arousal or a sense of hyper-vigilance,” reads the document. “Television coverage is both too graphic and overly dramatic. Turn it off.”
• Start conversations about the tragedy. Even if your child isn’t talking about the tragedy, he or she may be thinking about it and following your non-verbal cues about keeping quiet. Ask them what they know and go from there.
• Let kids express their concerns. Instead of giving advice or trying to reassure children, let them talk about their feelings and then steer the conversation toward having them suggest measures that would help them feel more safe. Remember, adults’ methods of making schools safer, such as metal detectors and surveillance cameras, might not seem like enough to a young person.
• Be wary of children’s nighttime fears. Let your child set up a sleeping bag in your room for a few nights or stay with him or her while they fall asleep. At the very least, make sure they know where you’ll be sleeping so they don’t wake up upset that you’re not still in the room.
• Try to keep your own emotions in check. Children often mirror adults’ emotions, so try to remain open and honest, but measured — at least while there are kids around. One line you can use that bridges your own emotional strife with putting on a brave face for your children is “I am worried about some of those things as well, but I also know that many very bright people are working on problems like this, so I know that we’ll continue to work on how to keep kids safe.”
• Maintain a normal routine. Give kids more warning and extra support if there are to be changes to their usual days.
• Strike a balance with “clingy” children. By all means physically, comfort your children if they need it, but balance that by talking about things that are still OK and that lots of people are doing things to make sure they’re safe.
“We need to be honest, the answer needs to respect the integrity of the child and the integrity of the question. We need to give details that do not add any gore or trauma to what they already know or perceive, and it is often best to only give a brief answer that is just what they’ve ask, and then ask what else they want to know,” reads the organization’s advice. “Often when a child asks a question, we give way too many details and may go off in a direction that we think is of their interest. It is much more helpful for us to give less information and wait for the next question.”