Talking to Your Kids About the Newtown Tragedy
Isn’t anywhere safe anymore?
You can send your kids off to the movies — and they may get shot. Or they might go to hang out at the mall — and risk getting shot. Or to high school or college — where they might get shot. Kids get kidnapped on their way home from school and abducted out of their beds.
Now 20 first graders have been gunned down in their first grade classrooms.
In the last few years, our national sense of safety has been repeatedly shaken. We can’t take it for granted that when innocent kids do innocent, everyday things, they will risk nothing more than a belly ache from eating too much popcorn or an argument with a friend.
What do we tell ourselves? What do we tell the kids? For the last few days the networks have been turning to psychiatrists and psychologists for advice. They emphasize that we need to remember that such events as the shooting in Newtown, Conn. are rare. They tell us to put aside our own fear and be there for our kids. It’s wise advice but it is easier said than done.
These tragedies no longer seem so “rare.” Statistical probability is cold comfort when watching yet another clip of anxious and grieving parents on TV. We may do our best to hide our horror and grief but kids are sensitive little creatures who get even more anxious when they think we’re hiding something. Navigating ourselves and our children through such senseless and horrible news isn’t easy.
To the words of advice coming over the airwaves, I can only add these reminders:
Turn off the TV. Little kids don’t understand that they are seeing the same event over and over and over. Three news stories of those kids running from their school may seem to them like three different groups of kids under attack, which makes the world seem even more unsafe. Repeatedly watching the news may not be so good for the adults either. Another viewing probably won’t help you make any more sense of a senseless event. It may even trigger more grief and anger and pain.
Think carefully about what you are going to tell your kids. An explanation this important deserves some preparation. Tell kids only what they are ready to hear and what you know they can manage. Most teens can certainly handle the whole truth. They’re going to be reading about it and may need your help to sort through their feelings. But little kids under age 10 need us to be sensitive to what they can and can’t process. It’s enough for most to say that a very bad man killed some kids and everyone is very, very sad and mad. You don’t need to tell them the specifics of how the children were killed and how many were lost. You don’t need to go into details as they come through the news. When in doubt, take your cues from what the kids want to know. Give them only the information they ask for.
Emphasize stories of survival. One teacher hid her kids in closets and the kids stayed very quiet. Other kids ran away. Still others held each other’s hands to help themselves stay calm. Let your children know that even little kids can be brave and helpful.
Share your feelings. It’s okay to let kids see some of our tears and our anger. It’s important that they understand that crying about sad things and being mad about bad things is both appropriate and a way to get through. Children need help in naming their feelings and managing them. You are an important role model for doing so.
But stay in control of your feelings. Our kids need the grownups to be their most grown up at times like these. They need us to show them that even when we are sad, we are there for them first. When adults acknowledge what is happening but manage to stay calm and in control, the kids can relax.
Compartmentalize. Neither you nor your children can sit with those feelings all the time. After talking about what happened, suggest that enough has been shared for now and that it is time to do something to get everyone’s mind off it for awhile. Let the kids know you are willing to talk about it again later if they want to but it’s important to take a break. (Do keep that promise.) Then suggest something you can all do together that reaffirms normal life. Make cookies. Go for a walk. Read some stories.
Reassure. Help the children understand that when tragedies do happen, the story is very big because it is very bad. If you live in a community where such things are in fact rare, remind the kids that they are lucky to live in a place where people are usually safe. If, however, you live in a community where children have been abducted or harmed, do let them know all the ways you and the people around them are working to protect them.
Go over safety rules. Finally, this is a good time calmly to review the rules of safety. Brainstorm with the kids all the things you do with them to keep them from harm. Doors get locked at night. Children who are home alone shouldn’t answer the door. Wearing a seatbelt in the car and a helmet when riding a bike isn’t optional. There are rules about where they can go by themselves. There are rules about how often to check in with you when they are out or they have been left home alone. Tone is important. This isn’t a time for lecturing or scolding about rules. It’s a time for helping our children feel secure in a world that isn’t always predictable or safe.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Talking to Your Kids About the Newtown Tragedy. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/talking-to-your-kids-about-the-newtown-tragedy/