Dealing with National Tragedy: How we React and Communicate can Help our Kids Cope
For the next several days, the news will be filled with stories of the tragic killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As parents our emotions will continue to be super charged as we work through our own mental and spiritual healing. It is unthinkable. Unimaginable. Incomprehensible.
It’s necessary for parents to be mindful of how they manage the flow of information to their children. Some of that information is unspoken, so emotional demeanor is important too. The experts say to remain calm in front of your children, even the babies who have a sixth sense when it comes to reading their parents. It’s ok to be calm and sad. It’s ok to cry, as long as you share with your children that you are crying from sadness for other people who were hurt. You are the leader here and your children will model your coping and emotions.
The following are helpful tips to guide parents through the discussions and questions that may occur in the next week as children hear of the tragedy. Special Note: Don’t purposely tell your young children about this event if they don’t already know. This is not a “need to know” piece of information. It may be heavy on your mind, but there is no need to burden a young child by telling him the story.
Limit media exposure and adult conversation about the shooting in front of kids, even for those who know what happened. There is research that shows that children can suffer from PTSD from seeing visual images or hearing emotional stories on TV. Make a special effort to record favorite shows so you can fast forward through the ads for news programming.
Keep your routines the same. Don’t be sucked into watching news coverage during homework time.
Every child is different in how they will deal with this information, so speak with each child separately. This will allow you to give the child undivided attention while you discern what the child knows and feels. You can then speak directly to that child’s fears or need for information. This also will help you to keep the discussion age appropriate.
Remember that children’s brains don’t perceive and comprehend things the way adult brains do. This event and others like it are abstract to the brain and the immature brain needs caring adults to help deal with big emotions that they are not able to fully control.
Listen first. When talking to a child, you want to first learn what they know, what they think and what they feel before you start talking. Give the child space to express himself. Since the brain wants to always feel safe, don’t deny a child’s feelings of fear. Say things like, “I understand this makes you scared.” A child will say more if he feels comforted.
Boys may not want to talk and may need a physical outlet. Journaling or drawing is another way to allow self expression.
Details are not important. While we adults crave knowing every last detail, kids don’t need to know them. Keep the conversation as general as you can.
Children mostly want to feel safe and protected. It is your job to reassure them as often as necessary that adults in their lives will keep them safe.
Children of different ages need different levels of information. Dr. Dave Walsh offers these age-appropriate tips:
Early Childhood – babies and toddlers can sense your stress. Stay calm and keep your routine.
Elementary School – children this age will be concerned about their safety and that of their friends and family. Be extra patient if they exhibit some behavior changes.
Middle School – these children will be more aware because they will talk at school to friends and teachers. It’s important to make sure they know the truth as kids this age can distort and dramatize the story. Find out what they know and correct any misinformation. Acknowledge any fears and comfort as needed. They may respond with some misbehavior, or they may want to do something to help those who were hurt.
High School – teenagers may want to block out the news altogether so try to communicate openly and maintain the stream of reassuring comments. They may also resort to humor which should be discouraged. Teenagers need to take this seriously. It’s a good opportunity to start discussions about political issues like gun control, mental and public safety.
As parents, you can manage your family’s response to the shooting. In the process, however, if you notice a child isn’t coping well, professional help may be necessary to help the child overcome anxiety and fear. The following signs and symptoms are indications that help may be needed.
- Somatic complaints – headaches, stomachaches, nonspecific pain in arms, legs, body, etc.
- Aggression or irritability
- Crying or whining
- Uncontrollable anger or “short fuse”
- Inability to focus on schoolwork
- Frequent absenteeism from school
- Withdrawing from familiar activities
- Difficulty eating or sleeping
- Difficulty with making or sustaining friendships
- Frequent daydreaming or “spacey” behavior
- Twirling hair, sucking on fingers or thumb, biting lip
The following professionals contributed information for this article.
Diane HM Mandell
Palm Harbor Family Counseling Center/Owner
Dolores Mortimer, Director House of Mercy & Encouragement in Dunedin
LMHC, Registered Play Therapist/Supervisor
National Certified Counselor
Deborah McNelis founder of braininsights®
Dr Dave Walsh, founder of Mind Positive Parenting and
The National Institute on Media and the Family