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How to Talk to Children about the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

Renowned child psychiatrist, Dr. Pamela Cantor, answers the questions on many parents' minds in light of the tragedy in Newtown, CT.

By Turnaround for Children

Turnaround for Children, Inc. (Turnaround) strives to fulfill the promise of public education by helping high-poverty, low-performing public schools create positive learning environments that foster healthy intellectual, social, and emotional growth in every student.

December 19, 2012

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on turnaroundusa.org.

This week, millions of school children are returning to their classrooms for the first time since the Sandy Hook shootings. Parents may be wondering whether, and how, to talk to their children about this tragedy. It is a personal decision. But there are many factors that determine whether and how traumatic an event is for a child. The significance of a violent event to a child is not necessarily the nature of the event itself. The traumatic injury to children has much more to do with the ability to recover or the failure to recover. This is why knowing what to do as a parent or teacher to support a child is so important. The following are some recommended answers to questions many parents probably have right now, from one of the nation’s leading child psychiatrists and founder of Turnaround for Children, Dr. Pamela Cantor.

  1. How do I know how my child will respond to the knowledge of Friday’s events?

    Every child’s response will be different. But the factors that determine the impact on a child are:

    - The intrinsic resilience of the child
    - The severity of the event
    - Whether the child gets support right away

    Recovery from violent trauma requires an ability to restore a child’s sense of safety. Most often this is derived from what they experience from the adults on whom they depend. Children can be reassured that they will be o.k. again as long as the adults will be o.k. and will help and support them.

  2. My children don’t know about the school shooting. Do I need to tell them?

    Parents should speak to their children first, if possible, so that they control the first details that children hear, otherwise the risk is too great that they will get misinformation at school or somewhere else and be unnecessarily frightened.

  3. What should I tell them? Is it different for children of different ages?

    All children should have enough detail to know the truth about what happened. You might try language along these lines: “A very sad event happened last Friday in Connecticut that you might be hearing about and I wanted you to hear it from me first. A man with many problems came into a school and shot students and teachers there…” Take a pause, let them ask questions, and have the rest of what you say be guided by the questions they ask. This will help you to know what they are most worried about.

    - All children need to know that these events are highly unusual and happen very rarely.
    - All children need to be assured that they can count on you to tell them the truth so they should come to you with questions as they have them.
    - More details will be coming out so you and they will continue to talk.
    - Be better listeners than talkers, be patient, don’t probe if children are quiet at first
    - Don’t tell them what to feel
    - Stay close and connected to them. Be reassuring.

    For older children who have likely heard about Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech:

    - Older children need the same reassurance but will have more sophisticated questions about why this happened. Discussing the issue in terms of likely causes, asking them their ideas about what they think should be done about it, how they might want to help the victims, or preventing these things from happening in the future will help. 

  4. What if my children get scared and want to stay home from school?

    Children need a great deal of reassurance that they will be safe. They may ask the same questions over and over. Be patient and let them know that even though this did happen, these events are very, very unusual and that schools take many precautions to make sure children will be safe.

    If children want to stay home, it is often because they don’t want anything to happen to you. If they are very frightened, staying home for a day or two isn’t a problem but routines are very reassuring to children so a child returning to school and the school preparing for the feelings children will have are the best paths toward recovery from an event like this.
  5. What are some of the typical reactions children have to a traumatic event such as this one?

    - trouble sleeping, nightmares
    - feeling helpless
    - feeling this is somehow their fault, not knowing how to help
    - physical symptoms
    - inability to concentrate
    - regression or reverting to baby-like behavior
    - questions will be asked over and over again, likely over a long period
    - anger, irritability
    - children who have been exposed to prior trauma are at higher risk for symptoms that don’t go away

  6. What are some of the things I can do to limit the amount of worry and fear my children experience?

    - Do not let younger children watch television news. Limit exposure to TV for older children as well.
    - Avoid exposing children to adult conversations about this event.
    - Try to limit exposure to excessive worries that you might have although sharing some of your feelings about concern for the victims is o.k. Exposure to excessive worry in you will frighten your children unnecessarily.
    - Stay close, be patient, but try to avoid being over-protective.

  7. How long will I have to worry about this event and its impact?

    Children may be asking questions about this for a long time, or may hear things that trigger new questions. Other children may feel a return to safety that is much quicker. What is most important is to try to assess what your own child needs and tailor your response to that. Over-talking/over-protecting is just as problematic as pretending the shooting didn’t happen. Calibrate your response to your child’s age and level of stress and need.

  8. When should I go for help if needed? What are the early warning signs?

    Here are three things to be guided by when assessing whether a child needs professional help:

    - Intensity of a child's response: many children will have a reaction that will be temporary including increased anxiety, nightmares, worry, sadness or irritability. I would be concerned if reaction is intense (very intense fears, intense irritability, especially agitated)
    - Frequency: frequent episodes during the day or over several days (trouble sleeping over several days; multiple episodes of intense anxiety)
    - Persistence: reaction persists over a week

Image credit: Getty Images