This morning's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Conneticut., has reportedly left 27 people, including 18 children, dead. It's a horrific reminder that no matter how hard we try to keep our kids out of danger, we can't protect them all the time. Although it can be easy to want to avoid talking about a tragedy with your kids, it's important if they're old enough to have heard about it. Here's how to talk about a school shooting with your kids, age by age.
Keep it simple. Even if you think young children are blissfully unaware the news, if the tragedy is local or being discussed among parents, chances are they'll know that something's going on, says David Schonfeld, M.D., director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. He suggests talking to your young children in simple and concrete terms. You can say, "someone brought a gun to school and hurt some people badly." Be honest and direct, but skip the details, which can be traumatising.
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Reassure, but don't lie. It's common for a preschooler to express very direct fears like, "I'm worried someone will come shoot us." If they do, Dr. Schonfeld says parents should reassure their kids without making any false promises or dismissing their concerns. "Tell them it's very unlikely something like that will occur and you and other adults are taking steps to keep them safe."
Limit media exposure. You don't need to hide the newspaper during a tragedy, but you shouldn't have the news running 24/7, either. Dr. Schonfeld says studies have shown that repeated exposure to graphic details may make it harder for a child to cope with a tragedy. Try to watch the news when young kids are not in the room, and if they do hear a scary-sounding news snippet, address it simply and let them know you are doing everything you can to keep them safe.
Talk about what real guns can do. Whether they're playing with toy guns or simply making their fingers into the shape of a gun, preschoolers are typically aware of guns and need to understand the difference between a toy and a real weapon, says Hayley Sherwood, a psychologist who works with kids who are victims of trauma and did a video series about how to talk to your kids after a school shooting. "I would say, 'it's okay to play pretend guns, but real guns can hurt people and very scary things can happen with real guns.'"
Be honest, but not explicit. Like preschoolers, the best approach for school-age kids is a direct and honest one. Sherwood suggests starting the conversation by asking what they've heard about the shooting in school from their classmates or teacher. Correct any misinformation and answer questions honestly, with simple answers that don't delve into explicit, potentially traumatising details.
Find out their fears. If you're going to try and comfort kids, you have to find out what's worrying them, says Dr. Schonfeld. "The fears children have might be different than adults and might be distorted and incomplete," he says. Speak in a calm, empathetic tone and make sure any conversation you have includes lots of opportunities for your kids to ask questions and share their concerns.