Family Matters

Am I Safe? Talking to Your Kids About the Sandy Hook School Shooting

Explaining the tragedy means answering children's questions honestly without overwhelming them with too much detail

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Michelle McLoughlin / Reuters

A young boy is comforted outside Sandy Hook Elementary School after a shooting in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14, 2012.

Across America, parents are taking a big breath before attempting one of the more difficult conversations they will have with their children: explaining how tragedies such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School can happen.

It’s hard to distill the Connecticut tragedy for little kids when it doesn’t even make sense to adults. But at dinnertime, bedtime, during carpool and everywhere in between, children will be turning to mom and dad  for reassurance that they are safe.

“Tell them the truth, in their language,” says Emanuel Maidenberg, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA who specializes in anxiety. “Let them know that this is something that doesn’t happen very often and they are safe.”

Experts vary on how proactive parents should be: some recommend against bringing up the subject unless curious or frightened children ask, although most advise parents to initiate a conversation. Either way, the key is to reassure kids and answer their questions without providing information overload. Be honest, keeping in mind your child’s age, adjusting your explanations to your children’s ability to understand. And continue with your family’s regular routine, advises Maidenberg. “Most young kids don’t have the skills to put their feelings into words so encourage them to talk about what they feel and name their emotions,” says Maidenberg.

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It’s normal for kids who hear about what happened to feel stressed and anxious, says Kenneth Dodge, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, especially since the shootings occurred at school. But despite the intense coverage that school shootings receive, schools are, in fact, some of the safest places for young children. The most recent statistics from 2010 show that 17 children were killed in U.S. schools — less than 2% of child homicides that year, according to David Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. The figures are reassuring, to some extent, but the drama of a mass calamity is impossible to ignore.

“You can say to your kids, Just because this happened at one school doesn’t mean it’s going to happen at your school. I’m really comfortable and confident about your school,” says Dodge. “It’s natural to feel anxious, but most kids will get over it on their own.”

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Parents can help by curbing any tendency to overshare; save the in-depth discussions for grown-up company. “You don’t want to tell kids too much,” says Rahil Briggs, a child psychologist at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx. Any amount of exposure to scary news about the school shooting can potentially lead to clingy behavior, irritability or loss of appetite. Children also express feelings through play so it wouldn’t be unusual for them to use art or Legos to capture their thoughts. Briggs was a graduate student at New York University on 9/11; in the weeks after the attacks, she visited various schools where she watched children as they sketched images of buildings falling or airplanes on fire. “They would draw picture after picture,” she says.

That’s a healthy way of coping with disaster. Most children will ask some questions about what happened in Connecticut, draw some pictures, inquire about what it means to be dead — and move on. For those who seem fixated on the details and worried about their safety even after several weeks go by, it’s a good idea to seek advice from a pediatrician or psychologist.

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It’s also a good idea to empower kids who feel helpless by brainstorming ways to be useful. Have your kids write letters to the students at Sandy Hook (912 Dickinson Dr., Sandy Hook, CT 06482), suggests Dodge. Make signs of support. It will help up shore up morale in Newtown, Conn., and make your kids feel useful, which in turn relieves some of the stress and fear they are feeling.

Kids, of course, aren’t the only ones who need help coping. As a parent of a kindergartener, I dropped by her school after news of the Sandy Hook shooting to give her a kiss and a hug for reasons she did not yet know. While at her school, her teacher — who teared up but quickly regained her composure — handed me a note from the school district’s superintendent reiterating exactly what various experts had emphasized. He encouraged parents to turn off the television news and give “honest, simple, brief” answers to any questions that kids ask. “If children keep asking the same question over and over again it is because they are trying to understand, trying to make sense out of the disruption and confusion in their world,” the superintendent wrote.

As parents, we can only try to help that process along, even if we don’t have the  answers.