In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy, parents are wondering what to tell their children about what happened and how to help them process what they may be hearing from friends, on television and via social media.
Lauren Hutchinson, LMFT is a child and family therapist and parenting consultant with a practice in Bellevue, WA. She says step one for parents is to “turn off the TV”. “We don’t want to have the TV playing in the background all the time. It isn’t helpful and the news is traumatizing for kids to watch.”
For kids age seven and younger Hutchinson says, “you want to shield them from the media coverage completely and parents should not initiate a conversation about the event because kids this age cannot make sense of what has happened.”
“Kids don’t need to know the specific details of the event, like that the shooter was dressed all in black.” We forget, says Hutchinson, that children, especially ages seven and younger, “hold tight to those kinds of negative images.”
For kids ages seven to twelve, Hutchinson says, “you might provide them with basic information and reassure them.” “The most important thing for kids this age is to know that they are safe. Talk about how parents and school teachers and staff work hard to protect kids and do tell them that the police “got the bad guy”.” Hutchinson says that parents should “read the child’s cues and let them bring up what he or she wants to talk about.”
She has two children herself and says that she will process the event differently with each because of their ages. “My 7th grader will have access to friends with smart phones and may have already heard about the event. With him I’m going to answer questions, not rehash the event, and respond to specific questions and concerns he has. With adolescents, there is an opportunity to talk in greater depth and have an actual conversation about what happened, what might make someone do something like this, etc. With my ten-year-old, I will tell him what happened in brief, non-descriptive language. ‘Something really terrible happened at a school in Connecticut today. A gunman shot some students and adults. Many families and the community are heartbroken over the senselessness of this act.’ Then I am going to hone in on him and his response. This may be enough information for him; other kids may seek greater detail. Either is okay. Be honest and direct without too many details.”
Hutchinson says it is important for parents to “not invalidate feelings and remember kids will take their cue from your responses. While we may be feeling weepy or mesmerized by the TV coverage, we need to remember our kids are watching us.” She says that like all parents, she is curious about many details of the case but will wait until after her kids are asleep to go online and read the news coverage.
One of the most helpful things parents can do for their children, now and in the weeks ahead says Hutchinson is “take action”. “They need a meaningful way to express their emotions and process what happened.” For her own children, her family will be lighting a candle and saying a prayer for the victims and their families. “Rituals are important, especially during times like these, for comfort and healing.”
How are you talking to your children about this tragedy?