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Tips for Discussing Tragedy with Children

Tips for discussing the recent tragedy in Connecticut with children.

I have written about this topic too much lately. Many of the following tips and suggestions are taken from my blog written after the tragic shooting this past summer in Colorado. However, writing this blog, on the same topic but after very different circumstances, I am finding to be very difficult.

Like many of you reading this, I heard of the tragic shootings and mass fatalities at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct., on Friday morning while I was at work. As the details emerged I became sick to my stomach. Twenty-six people have died, 20 of them children at the hands of a young man who enters a school with weapons and goes into a kindergarten classroom.

The news cut right to my core and opened raw intense emotions. As a therapist, I objectively know and I am comfortable talking to people, especially children, about a wide array of deep and emotional issues. However, yesterday and todayI find myself having difficulty. I am not just responding as a therapist but as a  parent and person who loves children. It is the most unnatural and unthinkable of things, young lives cut short. Parents outliving children. Educators, who dedicate their lives to children, among those killed.

It also occurred to me that part of what is different is that this tragedy occurred so close to home. Newtown, Ct. closely mirrors our own hometown and therefore we cannot use the rationalization that things like this don't happen here or we are safe. I also believe that since the tri-state area was just devastated by Hurricane Sandy and many of our own have experienced a difference kind of loss and trauma, that those feelings are being triggered as well. 

1. My first tip for parents and adults is to take the time to sit and process
their own emotional reactions so that they are in a better place to
talk to children about what occurred.  

2. Limit children's exposure to the event. The news media has become a
24-hour-a-day 7 day a week service.  It seems after something like
this occurs every television in town airs the event. The constant
watching of these events is unhealthy and traumatic. It can actually
cause children and adults to psychologically distance themselves,
almost becoming numb to deal with the events. This does not allow
them to process their emotions in a healthy manner. It can also do
the opposite and make the feelings so overwhelming that people are
not able to process them in a healthy manner.

3. Start by listening to your child. See what they already know and
understand. The goal is to see what they know and to clear up any
misconceptions that may be bothering them. Just having basic
questions answered and being reassured they are safe is enough
for a child. Limit your answers to the questions asked and
remember to use age appropriate simple language.

4. Don't assume you know how they feel. By simply asking them, "How does
that make you feel?" you will quickly know. Also questions such as, "What did you hear?" or "What are you afraid of?" will give you a better understanding of their
concerns. Oftentimes children use twisted logic and don't understand that the school in Newtown is not their school. Sometimes clarification of these issues for them provides them with more comfort and basic understanding.

5. Concentrate on making them feel safe. Children often wonder if it could happen
to them. In the case of natural disasters, if it is a situation that couldn't occur where you live let them know. In this situation, it is a bit more tricky, assuring your child that their school takes every precaution to keep them safe and teach
them what to do in an emergency is vital! It is also important to tell them that after such an event security is usually heightened, which is another safeguard towards keeping them safe. A child putting themselves in the same situation is the  beginning of developing empathy, which is healthy, but if it is causing them excessive worry then it is a problem.

6. Give children a creative outlet to express their feelings. Children often do not
have the language to discuss and process how they are feeling. It is said that play is a child's work and studies show it not only allows them to process their feelings but gives them activities to "take their mind off of things" and be in the
moment, which in and of itself is healing.

7. Be honest. If a child asks questions that are difficult and you don't know the
answer be honest. When asked questions such as "Why did this happen?" it is okay to be honest and say you don't know.

8. Get involved. If there is opportunity to donate or participate in a fundraiser
to help those directly involved, let your children know you will be helping as a family. Model concern and empathy, it is an important lesson for children.

9. Express your feelings. Just as it is important for a child to feel safe and
secure so they can express their feelings, it is important that parents do the same. Talk about how you are feeling to your partner, friends, etc. Express your feelings and concerns. Your ability to help your child is difficult emotions is directly related to your ability to deal with your own feelings.  As stated in #1, your ability to talk about this with your children, in an age appropriate manner, is SO important.  Children take their clues from you.

This is truly a tragedy that is beyond comprehension. As a society, we have failed on many levels. We failed to keep our children and those who educate them safe and we are failing at providing troubled youth and others who commit such crimes the mental health services and/or school based services they need. My advice to many on the day the news broke was to hug your children and loved ones extra tight and to remember those who can not because of this tragedy. Focus on celebrating and being thankful for their lives and safety. It is one
way of honoring all those who were lost.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Heidi Olsen December 17, 2012 at 12:14 AM
Thanks for sharing. Good advise in our home with the girls. So true about news. So horrible.
Alicia R. Camlibel, Ph.D., LPC December 17, 2012 at 12:45 AM
Thank you Heidi. Happy Holidays. Alicia
Cindi Cook December 17, 2012 at 04:43 PM
Alicia, this is an excellent article. Thank you so much for writing it. I am a resident of Basking Ridge with a boyfriend who has four children, so this will be a great aid in talking to them. Friday's events truly are incomprehensible, and I truly want nothing like that--even close to that--to ever happen again. I cannot stop thinking about the sweet babies who were lost and the brave teachers as well. We should all live every day as BEST we can as citizens, family members, and human beings, in honor of them. Thank you again -- Cindi Cook
BRER December 24, 2012 at 08:13 PM
This is truly a very helpful piece from a pro. The pointers can be applied to other facets of life as well. Kudos!
Alicia R. Camlibel, Ph.D., LPC December 24, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Thank you BRER

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