Straight Talk: Talking to children about the Newtown, CT school shootings.

What should I tell my children about the Newtown, CT school shootings?

            There's only one topic worth writing about this week: the Newtown, CT elementary school shootings.  We are left wondering why this happened, how could it have been prevented, and what can we do to keep our children safe.  There are no simple answers.  We only know our deep sympathy and concern for all the families that have lost loved ones and for all the children and parents affected. 

            Meanwhile we have to figure out what to tell our own children.  How do we talk to them about something so terrible?  Should we say anything?  The answer depends on the child.

             What does your child know about the shootings?

            What are their thoughts and feelings?

            What do they really need from you?

             Most parents assume their children will be affected by the news, but this may not really be the case, especially with pre-school and kindergarten-age children.  It's okay to wait and see how they feel, rather than beginning a difficult conversation that they may not be ready for. 

             Many of them will just think of news coverage as another uninteresting TV show for their parents.  The line between news and television drama may not be clear yet.  They're waiting for Superman or the Power Rangers to show up.  If your child thinks the news coverage is boring, let them watch a favorite program or movie.  It might even do you good to join them.  Thomas the Tank Engine is a lot more calming than CNN these days.

             Slightly older children may recognize that there was a tragic event, but that it doesn't affect them directly.  There may be schoolyard discussions or their teachers may address the subject.  They may have heard different things from older children, especially older siblings.  Fantasy and reality may be mixed.  By third or fourth grade many children will recognize the events are real, and they may have serious and realistic worries about their safety.  So, what should you say?

             My approach is to ask questions.  Ask your child what they think about things.  How do they feel about all of it?  Do they feel safe? 

             It's not necessary for your children to have all of the information, just the information they need.   Try to put things in perspective.  I like the idea of comparing things.  A tragedy occurred, but it wasn't around here.  Everyone we know is okay.  It's very unlikely that anything like this will every happen to anyone we know.

             Do you remember the Doctor Seuss classic: "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street"?  Even if you have a worried nine or ten year old, it still has relevance.  The events they see on television are real, but unlikely.  There are real circus parades with elephants and lions, but they're not likely to come down Sunrise Highway or Franklin Avenue anytime soon.

             You might also want to refocus your children's concerns on more likely dangers and how they're being protected.  You might want to turn the conversation to include the importance of your rules and their school's rule to keep them safe.  Safety in the street and at home should be a bigger concern.  Show them that it's a bigger concern for you.

             Many older children (tweens and teenagers) will need to be assured that their parents, schools and community leaders are working to make things safer.  They may feel very upset for the families affected.  As with adults, doing something takes away the feeling of powerlessness.  It's okay to write or make sympathy cards to be sent to the school, if it will help your children engage with and master their feelings.  Some children, particularly younger teens, can also be encouraged to work on some form of anti-violence project.  This gives them the sense that they can have a positive effect on their world.

             Children need their parents to model stability and courage.  Can you remember ever seeing your own parents crying?  How old were you?  How important was it to you?  None of us are perfect, and there are times when its important for children to understand adult tears, but try to speak to your children when you're feeling calm and strong.

-- Etan Ben-Ami, LCSW, December 16, 2012

             If you have a question you’d like me to answer, you can send it to me via email at  straight.talk@effective-therapy-ny.com.  Please include a nickname.  Your questions will be kept confidential within the limits of the law and common sense.

Straight Talk is written by Etan Ben-Ami, LCSW, a psychotherapist with a practice in downtown Lynbrook. He specializes in short-term treatment for anxiety and depression.  He can be reached at 516-880-4173 or via email at etan@effective-therapy-ny.com.  Please take a look at his website at www.nassaupsych.com.

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