As the school day neared its end Monday, Marci Parizo of Bangor wrestled with what to say to her young son about the shooting in Newtown, Conn., when he returned home.
Five-year-old Landen hadn’t been aware of Friday’s tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but Parizo wondered what he would pick up from others during class. When she’d pulled up to Fruit Street School to drop Landen off, a police cruiser was parked out front, a sight that both alarmed and reassured her, she said.
“I don’t know what I will say this afternoon, if anything at all,” she said. “I wish I was more prepared.”
Parizo, also mother to 3-year-old Sullivan, said she’d likely wait to see if Landen asked her questions about the shooting. She could reassure him that his teachers would keep him safe, reminding him of the emergency drills he’d practiced.
But what if her son asked the question on everyone’s minds about the terrible losses in Newtown: Why?
“That’s the tricky one,” she said. “We don’t know why, nobody knows why. You want to give them some type of answer better than that.”
Parents across the country are struggling to help their children understand the tragedy as they grapple with it themselves. How to explain enough, but not too much. How to experience the shock and sadness without instilling fear. How to reassure children that they’re safe when the parents’ own sense of security has been shaken.
“It’s always OK to say you don’t know,” said Susan Giambalvo, a clinical social worker and program director at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland. “Children may ask you a question that you can’t answer.”
Let children lead the way with their questions, she said. Use age-appropriate language, and don’t feel the need to go into every detail about Friday’s tragedy, she said.
“Be brief and be honest and if they want to know more, they will ask you more,” Giambalvo said.
Children may need reassurance that the adults around them will keep them safe, said Julie Frost-Pettengill, a Bangor grief therapist. Explain that bad things happen to good people, but emphasize the rarity of such events, she said.
“This is so enormous that if we’re not careful it could paralyze us,” she said. “The reality is it didn’t happen to us — it happened to us in the sense that we’re a collective family.”
Other tips for parents to help children cope with crisis, include:
- Be prepared for children to ask the same questions more than once as they process their feelings.
- If a young child doesn’t ask about a tragic event, that typically means the event isn’t on the child’s mind, Frost-Pettengill said.
- Be patient if a child regresses in their behavior. For example, a child who typically sleeps through the night may want to sleep on the floor in a parent’s room, Frost-Pettengill said. Accommodate the behavior, but don’t indulge it for too long and try return to normal routines, she said.
- Young children may not grasp the concept of death or killing, Giambalvo said. “It’s important that parents use the words ‘dead’ and ‘died’ when talking with their kids. It can be confusing for kids if you don’t; they take things very concretely.”
- Don’t be alarmed if a child has an intense burst of feeling, then is ready to play five minutes later. “That’s completely normal,” Giambalvo said.
- Reach out to others. Organize a vigil or a moment of silence or participate in a recognition of the tragedy. Talk to other parents about your own feelings of shock, despair or grief, so you’re prepared to reassure your children when they need it, Frost-Pettengill said.
- Find out if your child’s school has a crisis plan and what steps it involves. Talk to your child about the plan and explain that their teachers know what to do to keep them safe, Giambalvo said.
Many parents may also wonder whether to shield their children from media reports of Friday’s shooting. While older children may benefit from watching one news account and then discussing it with their parents, younger children may wrongly interpret the constant coverage to mean that the shooting is still happening or occurring in their town, Frost-Pettengill said.
“Definitely turn the television off because the repeated exposure to the coverage, the stories, the photographs … It’s upsetting, and we can minimize that just by minimizing our exposure to it,” Giambalvo said.
If a child’s concerns or anxiety about the shooting appear intense, persist or worsen, or the child stops showing interest in once-favorite activities, professional support may be in order, Giambalvo said.
As a child grows, their response to a traumatic event can evolve, Frost-Pettengill said. Parents should be on the lookout for warning signs that a child is struggling to cope, even months later, she said.
It’s natural to feel shaken in the days and months following such a tragedy, Giambalvo said, but key to moving on with life will be reaching out to family, friends, and neighbors, she said.
“We need to rebuild our sense of safety and community,” Giambalvo said.