Parents were hugging their children a little tighter on Friday after the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 28 dead, 20 of them elementary school students. What words should pass between them?
While broaching the sensitive issue to a child can be difficult, it’s necessary for children to know the facts and be able to put the tragedy into perspective, experts say.
As with any mass murder, the circumstances and details are incomprehensible. In general, parents should keep answers simple, sparing children of the grisly details, while focusing on the safety of their children.
Experts agree that parents should ask their children what they know about the tragedy – they might be misinformed – and check in with them about how they’re feeling frequently. Remain attuned to the child’s trauma levels if they don't want to open up, paying attention to details like body language or how they've been playing or drawing, for example.
Listen carefully and don't make children feel badly about being scared, Paul Coleman, author of "How to Say It to Your Child When Bad Things Happen," told CNN.
"If they are scared, ask what they're afraid of – don't assume you know,” says Coleman. “They could be using twisted logic. Correct any misconceptions, and then offer assurance."
Keeping explanations age-appropriate is important.
ABC News reports
some sample answers and tactics meant to reassure children of specific ages, courtesy of Dr. Anand Pandya, co-founder of the Disaster Psychiatry Outreach Center and an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA:
"Something bad happened, but we're going to keep you safe."
"These things almost never happen. Shootings are extremely rare, and there may be an individual who is sick or who has problems who did this."
Older kids will be watching the news reports with or without their parents. Engage in a conversation with them. Ask your teenager, "What do you think we should do?" This may strike up a conversation about gun safety or regulations. Again, remind them that this is rare. If they do want to go to the movies, reinforce safety routines.
Coleman also advises to use the tragedy as a teaching moment to emphasize the importance of giving back. Talking about donating to a relief fund, for instance, will make the parent a role model for compassion and empower the child to create positive change. Focus on the heroes of the tragedy as well, the people who helped others in the face of disaster.
And it’s best to shield children from watching seemingly never-ending media reports on the tragedy, Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, and the director of the Yale Parenting Center, told ABC News
"There were children who had nothing to do with 9/11 but saw endless [reports about it] in the media and some developed traumatic reactions," Kazdin explained. "Such exposure can really have enormous impact."
More Coverage of Newtown, Conn. Shooting:
At least 27 Dead in Connecticut School Shooting
White House: School Shooting ' Weighs' on Obama
Emotional Obama Chokes Up While Addressing Shooting
A Profile of Newtown, Conn., and Sandy Hook Elementary
Newtown, Conn. Shooting: Timeline of Mass Killings Since Columbine
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