How and What to Share with your Children When Tragedy Strikes

1. Turn the TV off

Children are deeply affected by what they see. This latest news of the school shooting in CT (most significantly the footage of it on TV) might be too much for little ears and eyes and hearts. Filtering out horrifying images and words might be best for those too little to understand.  After 9/11, child psychologists coined a new term, “secondary terrorism,” for the  experience many young children went through after being exposed to the terrible events that occurred on an endless television loop.

 2. Consider not telling your youngest children at all

There is no need to burden children who won’t otherwise know about the shootings with this information. Please use extreme wisdom as you decide what to share with your little ones. Much depends on their age and maturity, but YOU should be the one to tell them and not the news.

3. If you must tell your children, use care in what words you choose

Think carefully about what words you will use to tell them what happened. Use simple, age-appropriate sentences, like “Someone came into a school and hurt some children. We don’t know why.” Then you can comfort your children by saying their school is safe, and that you’re confident their school is one of the safest places they can be.  Try your best to assure them of your love and care for them so that they still feel safe. Try to avoid words that sensationalize what happened. Words have such power. Choose them wisely with your young ones.   Let’s say your child follows up with, “But how do you know?” An appropriate reply could be, “Because nothing like this ever happened at your school. Or at Mommy or Daddy’s school.”

 4. Give them age appropriate information about safety at school

Safety talks have become commonplace in our world today. Children thrive when they know what’s expected of them, and since school shootings have (unfortunately) become more commonplace I know more schools are drilling what to do if there’s danger during the school day.  Create a safety plan yourself. Keep it general. Don’t talk about what to do in the event of a school shooting. Instead, say things like, “if there’s ever an emergency, do this…” Or “if you ever hear strange noises in the school and you’re afraid, do this…” then drill it with them. Make your child feel confident that he or she knows what to do in an emergency and they’ll feel safer when they go back.

5. Be authentic and reassuring with your children but keep it simple

The key is honest, concise, but vague information, tailored for your child’s specific questions and age. If your child sees you crying, just be brief and honest. “I’m so sad for what happened to those other families.”  As parents, we have to work to help our children overcome their fears. Try to remain calm and present a strong, reassuring front.

6. Be available to them

Reassure them you are there anytime they need you. Some children may need constant soothing for awhile. Encourage them with notes or texts. The most important thing you want to communicate is not information about this gut-churning event. It’s that when things trouble or confuse your kids, they can come to you for answers, and they will get them, in a way that helps relieve their anxiety. Keep in mind that being fearful is a normal developmental phase—think of the times you’ve had to show your children that there are no monsters under the bed. So you want to be sensitive not to give the kind of unnecessary detail that feeds a child’s tendency toward fear.  And forget the tough love and tough lessons. This is not the time to let your 8-year-old know the world is full of horrible people.

7. Cultivate spirituality in times of crisis

Every family should have a way of coping with difficult things in life, and be able to give meaning to the bad things that happen. Teach them the importance of cultivating their spiritual side to be able to draw strength from that during these times, as well as to offer hope and comfort. If they continue to be fearful after a week or so, or there are changes in their behavior, consult a mental health professional for additional help and support for your child.