We are inundated with media coverage of the horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut. A parent’s worst nightmare, that a monster is terrorizing and potentially killing their child, has become a reality. We have stared unbelieving at the images of terrified children being led to safety; we have shuddered to try to imagine being one of the parents, one of the teachers, one of the children; we have cried, we have mourned; we are terrified for those children, for our children, for all children. The media discussion of this tragedy is constant, and sometimes difficult for us to bear. If it is tough for us, how are our children dealing with this tragedy? One of our principal jobs as parents is to do all that we can to help our children feel safe. How are we talking to them about Newtown and what are we saying to try to help them cope??
Perhaps you received a letter from your children’s school suggesting ways to best communicate with your children about this tragedy. Our school psychologist’s tips for helping our children cope included the following helpful suggestions:
Don’t be afraid to talk about the tragedy and related emotions. Find out what your child is thinking or feeling and help reassure him that you are there for him.
Reassure your son that adults and other professionals work very hard to protect him – let your son know that there are many systems in place at the school to keep everyone there safe.
Limit media exposure, especially for the younger ones. If your child is watching or reading reports related to the incident, join in and talk with him.
Don’t be surprised if your child’s mood fluctuates or if s/he becomes clingy. Respond by letting your child know that you are there for her physically and emotionally.
If your child has a caregiver/nanny, they too may have a strong reaction to this event. Have a conversation with the caregiver and check in to find out how they are, as well as to share with them how they might respond if your child speaks to them about this event.
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has also assembled tips for parents to help them talk to their children about this issue. Among the many helpful suggestions in their document, found here, are developmentally appropriate ways to have these conversations:
Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.
The NASP also suggests the following points to emphasize when talking to children:
Schools are safe places. School staff work with parents and public safety providers (local police and fire departments, emergency responders, hospitals, etc.) to keep you safe.
The school building is safe because … (cite specific school procedures).
We all play a role in the school safety. Be observant and let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous or frightened.
There is a difference between reporting, tattling and gossiping. You can provide important information that may prevent harm either directly or anonymously by telling a trusted adult what you know or hear.
Don’t dwell on the worst possibilities. Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and the probability that it will affect our school.
Sometimes people do bad things that hurt others. They may be unable to handle their anger, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or suffering from mental illness. Adults (parents, teachers, police officers, doctors, faith leaders) work very hard to get those people help and keep them from hurting others. It is important for all of us to know how to get help if we feel really upset or angry and to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
Stay away from guns and other weapons. Tell an adult if you know someone has a gun. Access to guns is one of the leading risk factors for deadly violence.
Violence is never a solution to personal problems. Students can be part of the positive solution by participating in anti-violence programs at school, learning conflict mediation skills, and seeking help from an adult if they or a peer is struggling with anger, depression, or other emotions they cannot control.
While focusing on helping our kids feel safe we have to think about this in a context broader than this horrific incident. As President Obama said in his press conference on the day of the event, “As a country, we have been through this too many times, whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theater in Aurora or a street corner in Chicago.” He reminds us that as long as our children are being felled by senseless gun violence, in suburban neighborhoods or on city streets, we are not doing all that we can to keep them safe. In his speech at the memorial service this evening in Newtown, he suggests that he is ready to do more: “In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.” Encouraging words, and we hope to hear more soon.
As the days and weeks of this tragedy unfold, surely bringing more unsettling concepts and images, let us focus on our children and do all that we can to help them cope.