The images of children running in terror, families huddled together in prayer and first responders overcome with emotion have been seared to our memory. The town of Newtown, Conn. will never be the same and neither will we as the collective human race. As the nation struggles to heal, parents and teachers are faced with the difficult task of explaining the unexplainable to young children.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), the most important thing is to reassure children that they’re safe at home and school. “Schools are safe places,” said NASP President Amy Smith. “What happened is horrific but extremely rare. We send 56 million kids to schools every day, and statistically they are safer in school than anywhere else.”
The American Psychological Association urges parents to talk about the Sandy Hook tragedy with their children. As difficult as it is, young children need an adult’s help to process the information and images they see on TV, online or in the newspaper. The NASP asks adults to keep the age of their children in mind when assessing how to address the topic. Your child’s age dictates the approach you use to discuss the tragedy.
For children age of the Sandy Hook victims, it’s recommended to keep the discussion simple. Ask your children what they’ve already heard and seen and ask them if they have any questions. Some children won’t want to talk about it, so take a moment to share your own feelings, and explain to them that it’s OK to feel sad, angry or confused. Reassure them that their school is safe and go through home security procedures such as checking to ensure doors are locked.
For children in upper elementary school grade levels and middle school, the greatest challenge will be answering the question “why?” Why would someone go to a school and shoot and kill students and teachers? Since that question hasn’t been conclusively answered yet, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends adults be honest and admit they don’t know. Hold regular discussions with your children until media coverage slows down and explain that each school and city has a plan to keep kids safe in the case of an emergency.
High schoolers will be better able to process the information, having already formed opinions about topics associated with the tragedy such as gun control and school safety. Encourage them to express their opinions and share their thoughts – a more helpful approach than assuming they’re handling the information on their own. Also encourage them to be vigilant at school and report suspicious behavior.
While Sandy Hook Elementary has been the top story for the past week, experts advise that parents limit the amount of news children are exposed to. Take news breaks. Even if young children don’t appear to be paying attention to the evening news, they can still hear the words, and some of the information can be distressing. Viewing repeated images of the incident might confuse small children, who might get the impression that another school shooting has occurred. Monitor what your children see and make sure to keep an open dialogue.
The NASP asks parents to keep an eye on their children to look for changes in behavior such as the inability to sleep or loss of appetite. These could be signs of anxiety and distress. Monitor these behaviors and seek professional help should they continue for more than a week.
For more information about how to talk with your children about violence in schools, visit www.nasponline.org or www.apa.org.