Talking to Children About Tragedy in Wake of Connecticut School Shooting
How do you explain the unexplainable to children? Parents across the country, including myself, were faced with this -- fumbling over words while explaining the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown - located only 20 miles away from my own daughter's elementary school.
My two children and I live in the Connecticut suburbs - not far from Newtown. And while we're far enough away that there won't be faces missing among my children's playgroups, we're close enough to be completely rocked by it. Heck, who in the country isn't completely rocked by it?
There was a police officer stationed outside of my daughter's school when I picked her up yesterday -- something that isn't standard practice at elementary schools in suburbia. She noticed it right away. "Mama, there's a policeman outside my school. That's weird."
I considered not telling her about the horror unfolding a few towns over -- about shielding her from knowing the extent of evil that exists within humankind -- that in a classroom nearly identical to her own, children nearly identical to her and her friends had been murdered while learning about two-plus-two and the importance of sharing.
And while I wish I could keep both of my children in a bubble and limit their worries to being about how Santa will get in the house when we don't have a chimney, it was clear that I couldn't shield the news from reaching her and that it was better for her to hear from me than from a news reporter putting emphasis on the word "massacre" in hopes of increased ratings.
Choosing the right words was no easy task, when as a parent all you want to do is promise to keep this little perfect person -- whose bumps and bruises you fix with kisses -- safe. I desperately wanted to be able to say, "A bad person hurt people. A lot of them died, but I promise that I will always keep you safe." It's the one promise every parent wishes they could make, but can't feasibly deliver.
I limited what I told her. She didn't need to know the exact death toll. I told her that not too far away, still in Connecticut, people were hurt by a bad person at a school. I told her that the bad person died and that he wouldn't be able to hurt anyone else and that I will always do everything I can to always keep her as safe as I can. I told her that her principal and police are making sure her school is safe so that nothing like that would ever happen there and that I know she probably has lots of sad feelings about it - that I have sad feelings about it - and that she can ask me any questions as she has them.
Her school also sent out a pamphlet from the National Association of School Psychologists about talking to children about violence, which recommends parents:
- Reassure children they are safe
- Make time to talk - the association recommends giving brief, simple information to early elementary school children; that upper elementary and early middle school children may need help separating reality from fantasy and to discuss efforts of school and community leaders to keep them safe; upper middle school and high school students may have suggestions on how to make schools safer and that parents should emphasize the role students play by following school safety guidelines.
- Review safety procedures
- Observe child's emotional state
- Limit child's viewing of news coverage
- Maintain normal routine
The association also says parents should tell children that senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand and that sometimes people do bad things to other people. If anything, the horror in Newtown provides for an opportunity to discuss the importance of gun safety with children and to tell them to stay away from weapons and that violence is never the answer to their problems.
I know I'll be hugging my kids extra hard these holidays and that my children and I will be sending our thoughts to the families in Newtown.