Helping Kids Through Tragedy

There is so much to be said about today’s shooting Newtown, Connecticut, but news is still breaking and my thoughts are no where near coherent enough to start in on that.

What does seem absolutely pressing to me, though, is talking about how to help kids through this: kids who were in that school, but also kids who are going to hear about this when they head home from school now, or over the weekend. I still remember coming home from middle school (later, after forensics practice) and watching Columbine coverage with my shocked parents. This is overwhelming news for anyone, but particularly difficult for parents, teachers, and students who rely on school as a safe place. Here, I’ll try to pull together relevant resources on talking kids through tragedy, especially one that hits so close to home to their school life.

Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Virginia has already pulled together a FAQ for parents specifically in response this school shooting:

Q: How do I talk to my children about the school shooting?

SF: Little children, around 5 and younger, don’t need to know about things like this. Do not watch TV stories about the event while children are in the room. You do not need to bring this up as a topic of conversation with small children. You can wait for children to ask you about what happened. If they never ask, continue business as usual. Older children are likely to approach you with questions. Or you can initiate a conversation by saying, “I know you’re hearing and seeing a lot about what happened at the school in Connecticut. How does this make you feel?” But I wouldn’t prepare a big speech trying to explain it all to them. I’d wait for them to ask you questions, and then answer each question with reassuring information that reflects your family’s values and history.

Nirvi Shah at Education Week also is covering the shooting, including advice on walking the careful line between informing children and protecting them from being overwhelmed by media coverage of violence:

In the days ahead, it will also be critical that parents and other adults in the Connecticut community—and in school districts across the country—attempt to keep students from being exposed to the constant cycle of news coverage that rehashes the tragedy, he said.

“We need to carefully monitor and restrict what students see, [so that they are] not watching it over and over again,” [Stephen] Brock [a professor of school psychology at the California State University, Sacramento] said. The tide of TV and other media coverage “increases the closeness” of students to the shootings, he added. “What we want is to minimize the trauma and minimize both the physical and emotional exposure to these events.”

The National Association of School Psychologists has a PDF with tips on how to tailor your conversation based on the age of the child. Among their suggestions of what to address:

• We all play a role in the school safety. Be observant and let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous or frightened. …

• Senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand. Doing things that you enjoy, sticking to your normal routine, and being with friends and family help make us feel better and keep us from worrying about the event.

• Sometimes people do bad things that hurt others. They may be unable to handle their anger, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or suffering from mental illness. Adults (parents, teachers, police officers, doctors, faith leaders) work very hard to get those people help and keep them from hurting others. It is important for all of us to know how to get help if we feel really upset or angry and to stay away from drugs and alcohol.

• Stay away from guns and other weapons. Tell an adult if you know someone has a gun. Access to guns is one of the leading risk factors for deadly violence.

• Violence is never a solution to personal problems. Students can be part of the positive solution by participating in anti-violence programs at school, learning conflict mediation skills, and seeking help from an adult if they or a peer is struggling with anger, depression, or other emotions they cannot control.

PBS offers tips on talking to kids about news stories in general. I appreciate the tips from PBS on meeting your kids where they are. Just because you, the adult, are a news junkie and have followed the story on multiple platforms, it does not mean overwhelm children with too much information. Start with what they know and go from there.

“Start by finding out what your child knows. When a news topic comes up, ask an open-ended question to find out what she knows like “What have you heard about it?” This encourages your child to let you know what she is thinking.

Ask a follow up question. Depending on your child’s comments, ask another question to get him thinking, such as “Why do you think that happened?” or “What do you think people should do to help?””

The American Psychological Association (APA) provides tips for how to help kids cope with a shooting, and offers an important reminder we all forget: how YOU react matters. Most people I know right now would describe themselves as not even knowing what to say; unfortunately for those around kids, that won’t stop the questions. This doesn’t mean pretending you’re alright, but it does mean maintaining a certain amount of normalcy that will be good for you and your child.

Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Be a model for your children on how to manage traumatic events. Keep regular schedules for activities such as family meals and exercise to help restore a sense of security and normalcy.”

The Fred Rogers Company also provides some outstanding advice for helping children through difficult stories in the news, starting with this beautiful reminder that I myself turn to in times of difficulty:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

One concern I have, though, is with PBS’ tip:

Offer reassurance. When a child is exposed to disturbing news, she may worry about her safety. To help her calm down, offer specific examples that relate to her environment like, “That hurricane happened far away but we’ve never had a hurricane where we live.” Actions speak louder than words — so show your child how you lock the door if she gets scared by a news report about robbers, point out the gutters and storm drains if a hurricane story causes fear, and explain what the security guards do at the airport after a story about terrorists.”

The terrifying thing about events like today is that there’s nothing outwardly telling that this tragedy would happen where it did. For kids in particular, I worry what they take away from the news may not be “That’s far away” but rather “That’s a school, just like mine.” And here’s where I leave off with a question, and a very serious call for suggestions: how do you make kids feel better or cope or just not lose sleep to very real concerns like these? I struggle as an adult, so please offer any resources for helping kids through school or childhood-specific tragedies.

And remember to tell your loved ones how much they mean to you, readers. We don’t say it often enough.

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