[Editor's note: The following advice and talking points have been contributed by Dr. Jessica Levitt, a clinical child psychologist based in Fairfield and New York City.]
It is difficult to think about talking to our children while we are still trying to come to terms with our own shock, sadness, fear, and anger about the shootings in
Newtown. However, it's important to talk with kids, even those as young as preschool or kindergarten age, about what happened and make sure that we are available to help them cope and feel safe.
Why Is It Important to Say Something?
It’s natural to want to protect young children from hearing about what happened, and you may think that if you don’t bring it up, they won’t hear about it. But, there is no way to shield them completely from hearing about it. By not telling them, you may be inadvertently sending a message that there is something to be scared about and they should not approach you. By telling them yourself, you will make them feel safer, let them know that adults are in control and make them feel comfortable talking to you about it. You also give them a good foundation for dealing with whatever information they hear later. If they hear it from another source before you talk with them, it is important to find out what they heard and correct any misinformation. By taking to your kids, you can provide reassurance, be a role model for tolerating the emotions and uncertainty following this tragedy, and make sure that you open the lines of communication for the future.
What Should You Say?
It's hard to know what to say to your kids about what happened. The goal is to give them some idea of what has happened or find out what they know about it already. You do not want to scare them or impress upon them significance of the event. You want to provide a safe sense of security. You do not want to make your children feel like they need to take care of your. So, stay calm and matter-of-fact when you talk to them. Keep the conversation casual. Some talking points are listed below to try to help you frame the conversation. Remember, most kids will be able to hand this news, and you can make it easier by being involved and supporting them during this difficult time.
- Give the facts: Something bad has happened to some ids in school near us. And kids got hurt.
- Everyone is very upset and sad, including us. People are talking about this on TV and everywhere (schools, restaurants, stores, places of worship, etc.) You might hear adults or other kids saying stuff about it.
- But, even if you hear people talking about it, it's over now. They caught the bad guy and can't hurt anyone anymore.
- Clarify: This was not your school. Your school is safe. You don't know anyone there. If you do know families from the Newtown school, you should talk with your kids about who was there, if they are safe, and what happened.
- Reassure: The President of the United States, the police, and all the adults in your life are doing everything they can to keep you and your school safe so that nothing like this can ever happen again.
- Many kids in Newtown were safe because of heroic teachers and police.
- Talk about what to do in an emergency, like a fire drill. Emphasize that it is important for kids to listen to teachers and police in emergencies.
- Suggest things kids can do to help: make cards for affected families, write letter to president about keeping schools safe, etc.
- Let kids ask questions, and answer honestly and simply. Don't lie!! Don't give more information or details than necessary. Keep it age appropriate and in line with what your kids can understand.
- Tell kids that you love them and will always protect them. Encourage them to talk with you about this and tell you what they hear. Keep the lines of communication open.
- Get on with the day, keep things normal. Spend time together. Be understanding and supportive if children are more clingy, emotional, or difficult in the short term.
- Be a role model: show kids how to be brave and stay strong.