Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sandy Hook--What to Tell Your Young Children

The tragedy at Sandy Hook is too terrible for words. Heart-breaking….Gut-wrenching…Terrifying… Devastating. Nothing seems to appropriately capture the overwhelming flood of emotions.  The fact that this tragedy happened on a Friday gives those of us who are parents a couple of days to start to process what has happened and figure out what to tell our children. On Monday, our kids will be back at school and we need to prepare them for what they might hear both officially from their school as well as on the playground.

First, find out what your school plans to communicate to the kids. If your child is an early elementary student, most likely, the school will not proactively start a conversation with the students. With that said, I don’t speak for the schools so I recommend finding out from the teacher or principal this weekend if/what they plan to say. Even if the school does not broach the topic with your child, if your child is in 2nd grade or older, there is a good chance they will hear something about it from other students. If your school plans to address the tragedy directly or if you think your child might hear about it, you need to prepare them in advance. You don’t want your child to hear about school shootings out on the playground and spend the rest of the day anxious and scared.

Here are some guidelines for speaking with your child:

Keep it simple and keep the age of your child in mind. Provide as few details as possible to convey the events. Discussions of weapons, number of children murdered, etc., don’t need to be part of it. Be sure and ask questions to find out how they feel and what they are worried about. Give them time to process the information and talk again later.

Validate their feelings. Your child will most likely express fear when they hear about the tragedy. Your main goal should be to understand your child’s fears. Don’t try to persuade them not to be afraid. “Yes, that is a very scary thing that happened. I can understand feeling afraid.” It is okay for them to be afraid. Your job is to make them feel safe and understood.

Make them feel safe at school. For young children, 3rd grade and younger, you need to  “guarantee” their safety at school. They don’t need to hear about (and won’t be able to really understand) probabilities. Keep things black and white. Their school is safe. Period. Older kids will probably realize on their own that nothing is a guarantee, but talk with them about the safety measures at their school, that their teachers are there to protect them, that it is an isolated incident that doesn’t happen everywhere, etc. Do your best to reassure them that they will be safe.

Deal with anxiety. If your child seems particularly anxious or is prone to anxiety, make you sure you spend extra time asking them how they feel, what they are afraid of, etc. Gauge their responses over time as it may take them a little while to process what they’ve heard and react. Spend extra time talking to them and reassuring them.

Make them go to school. If your child resists going to school on Monday, it is important that you make them go. Allowing them to stay home will only reinforce their fears that school is not safe for them and does nothing to help them overcome their fears. If you find yourself in this boat, talk to the school in the morning and let them know what is going on. Make sure that you and your child know what resources are available to them, and what your child can do if they start to feel overwhelmed at school. The longer your child stays out of school, the harder it will be to get them to return. You MUST be firm about this issue.

Handling tricky questions. If your child asks a question that you don’t know how to answer or don’t want to answer, ask them why they are asking the question. Most likely, their question is driven by some sort of underlying fear or anxiety. You may be surprised what their real concerns may be. For instance, your child may ask you if their school is safe. Your answer should be “Yes”, but you could follow that up with a question such as “Is there any reason that you think your school is not safe?”.  They may actually be worried that the same shooter will come to their school. Telling them that the “bad man died” may be what they really needed to hear.
You can then help address their concerns directly without having to answer a question that will either provide unnecessary details that might freak them out, or without an “I don’t know” response that provides no benefit to your child.

When to be concerned. The vast majority of kids will not be significantly affected by what they hear about this tragic event. I expect that for most kids, any anxiety symptoms they experience will be short lived (perhaps a few days to a week). If your child becomes a little clingy, is having trouble sleeping or is expressing some fears of going to school, don’t be concerned. If their anxiety persists for longer than a few weeks or interferes with their ability to function at school, seek professional help. 


  1. I saw you on MSNBC after the Tx shooting today. As a substitute teacher, I see lots of different campuses and lots of different kids. I think we should address the problem of conflict resolution in school, but much of the behavior comes down to how kids are raised. Many of the kids are taught, at home, that you fight back, or return the insult or physical attack. To many, it's not appropriate to walk away or use the methods taught in schools. How do you deal with that?

    1. Hi Shelly. Thanks for taking the time to comment. You are absolutely correct in that a child's social and emotional education starts at home. If what is taught at home is lacking in emotional intelligence or is otherwise contrary to the skills necessary to have positive and effective interactions and relationships, the school will have an uphill battle with any social curriculum. But, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Some of these children will be open to hearing other points of view; others will not. Most kids probably either get no advice from home or get some manner of good advice. For these kids, these types of curriculums/programs will be most effective. After all, a child spend the majority of their waking hours at school, and school presents the most opportunities for social interactions and conflicts with the broadest set of people. Parents aren't there to provide on-the-spot advice and may not really be aware of the dynamics at school. That is why it is important that the schools focus on social/emotional development as a formal part of their curriculum. Our kids need guidance as they learn how to have relationships with others, how to resolve conflicts, and how to conduct themselves productively. No solution is perfect. As you pointed out, some kids and their parents will have different points of view and pose challenges. In my opinion, I think the best way to address this is for the schools to have clear expectations for behaviors defined with clear consequences defined and consistently enforced. They may need to work directly with some families to see if issues can be resolved. Not a perfect solution, but a reasonable start.