How to talk to children about shooting tragedy

12/18/2012 12:00 AM

12/17/2012 3:15 PM

Editor's note: Dr. Melissa Arca's column, "Confessions of a Dr. Mom," regularly appears in the Thursday Living Here/Health & Fitness pages. This is an extra column addressing the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Like everyone else in America right now, I am heartbroken. My heart aches for those children lost Friday in Newtown, Conn. The story is unbelievable. And yet 20 families are living their worst nightmare.

It shakes us all to the core. We feel unsafe, and the urge to protect and shield our own children has never been as fierce. Many had the immediate desire to drop everything and pick up their kids from school, get back to the safety of their homes, hug them and never let go.

I was at work and cannot deny that I felt that pull too.

Then the questions from parents and the media came streaming in: What do we say to our children about this? I have to be honest and say I personally struggle with this. I have a 5- and a 7-year-old. I don't want to tell them. I don't want to undermine their sense of safety. They're children, for goodness' sake. Children just like the ones killed Friday.

Here is my best advice in the face of tragedy: Know there is no one right way to do this. Take cues from your children, and do what feels right to you.

To tell or not to tell? This is absolutely where I get tripped up. I know I won't talk with my 5-year-old about this. My 7-year-old? I'm not sure. He's in second grade. They have lockdown drills at school. Ironically, one was scheduled for Friday. They canceled it.

He knows they practice these in case of emergencies like "tornados or if a bandit comes to school." That's his word, "bandit." I asked him if anything happened at school or if he heard anything he wanted to talk about. He said no. I asked a few more questions and was fairly certain he had not heard the terrible news.

I tell parents that this is where you have to tune in to your children. No need to burden children 5 and younger with news like this that we adults can barely wrap our heads around. But for older children, we have to be mindful that even if they don't hear it from us, they may hear it elsewhere. Be the person they can come to with their fears, questions, and emotions.

Be simple and honest. Children are not looking for long, drawn-out explanations. They want to know what happened. Just save the disturbing and distressing details for your adult conversations.

Limit their media exposure. Events like this are often replayed over and over. Images can be disturbing. Turn the TV off and be proactive about how your children receive this type of information.

It's OK to show your emotions. Part of my own worry in bringing up this with my son is how I will rein in my own emotions. There will no doubt be tears. It's OK for our children to see us sad, but understand that they're looking to us for confirmation of safety. Do your best to get a hold on your anxiety and emotions before discussing with your children. They are incredibly intuitive.

Reassure them. Children want and need to know that, above all, they are safe. I know to us parents it sure doesn't feel that way, and a few parents wondered how they could convey that to their children when they found it hard to believe themselves in light of such tragedies. Yet, it's a childhood right to feel safe, and it's our duty as parents to protect that right.

Remind them of all the goodness in the world. When faced with horrific acts of violence, especially against children, we need to remind ourselves and our children of all the good and kindness in the world. We must look for the good. Our children need it, and so do we.

A wonderful quote from the late Fred Rogers comes to mind: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers; you will always find people who are helping.' "

Empower children with an act of kindness. Say a prayer together for the lives lost, take part in a candlelight vigil or send homemade cards of condolences.

More than anything, though, hug your children. Then hug them some more. Count your blessings and delight in the innocence of their childhood. Terrible and unimaginable tragedies like the Newtown horror immediately put everything into sharp perspective.

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