Helping Children Cope with a Tragedy Like Newtown

How do you talk to your kids about a public tragedy?©iStockphoto.com/TatyanaGI

MOM: I think this is a very very hard question to answer. It’s so difficult and a lot depends on the age of the child or children.

If you’re talking about kids who are 3, 4, 5 years old… I don’t know how much they absorb from what they hear in the news, or at school. But if they ask you about it, you have to tell them, and this is the very hard part because you don’t want to lie to your child but at the same time you don’t want to so frighten your child that he or she becomes immobilized with fear.

MOLLY: Right: phobic.

MOM: Maybe afraid to go to school, if this happened in a school, like what happened in Newtown last week.

It’s a double thing that’s going on now for kids. One is the terrible tragedy that’s happened to the people that it happened to, and the other part that the child may be concerned about is: could this happen to me? So you want to give your child reassurance that every measure is being taken to keep a child safe at school and that’s why the door is locked on the outside when school starts, and that’s why the teachers are very careful about who they let into the school.

I think you could say: “A terrible tragedy occurred, and a very sick man hurt a lot of children in a school. But at your school (speaking to the child), the teachers and everyone who works there is very, very careful that nothing bad will happen in your school.”

MOLLY: Do you actually say, “a terrible man killed 20 children?”

MOM: Well, not to a 5 year old, no. But to older kids, you might say that. The important thing is to ask what the kid knows and what the kid feels and understands, and then you go with that.

MOLLY: What if they ask “Why?”

MOM: If they ask why, I would say that he was very, very sick. He was thinking in a sick way and he was angry and he took it out on the children. And that you don’t know exactly why.

This is a very hard thing and I don’t know a lot of answers. I think one of the things that would help would be to sit with your child and see what your child says. Give your child as much comfort as possible. The younger the child, probably the fewer questions they would have.  But the whole thing is so unbelievable to adults, let alone to children, that it’s very hard to grasp.

I think you have to listen to your child. I wouldn’t tell the child about this unless the child brought it up.

MOLLY: Even though they’re going to hear it at school?  Wouldn’t you rather you tell them than someone else or another kid at school?

MOM: Don’t you think they’d come home and talk about it?

MOLLY: Sometimes, but I think it’s better to clarify it yourself…

MOM: Yes, well then you can say to a child that something really terrible happened….

MOLLY: I guess I’m still struggling with how to explain it because my 5-year old would ask me why he would do that. And, “What do you mean sick – he had the belly flu?”

MOM: Yeah, it’s really hard to explain to a young child. Really, all you can say is, “I don’t know why someone would do such a terrible thing.” And that would be the truth.

You don’t know why he did it, but the idea is to help your child be able to continue on in his or her own life without living in fear that it will happen to them.

It’s very hard to describe to a child – a child can’t possibly understand this and you can’t expect a child to understand it. We as adults can barely understand it. I think it’s more a matter of sitting with it – the psychological term is “holding it”. Just being with the child if the child is distressed about it, and more than likely he or she will be. Mostly the child will wonder: am I safe?

MOLLY: So, just to reiterate that they are safe and here are the things being done to keep them safe…

MOM: Right, and do exactly what your teachers say to do, because the teachers are there to keep the students safe.

That’s almost all you can do in a situation like this. Over time, the child might bring up more questions about it and you take it as it comes. You don’t want to overwhelm a child with information of this nature. You really don’t want your kid to be watching the news. I don’t’ think that’s helpful.

MOLLY: I think that’s a mistake.

MOM: It’s a mistake because kids that young won’t know what to do with all that information. It can be very graphic, very frightening.

MOLLY: The whole event at Newtown is just so horrifying.

MOM: It’s horrifying and it’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming for adults to watch the television about this, so I would do my best to keep the TV news off around young kids. Protect your kids and not have them watch the graphic coverage; they don’t need that kind of indelible visual memory.

When you do talk to a young child of 5, try to be somewhat matter of fact, though not cold, because you don’t want to overwhelm your child with your own feelings about what happened. Seeing a parent break down will really frighten the child.

MOLLY: So you just have to stay steady.

MOM: You have to stay steady with your kids. The other part of it is to help your child feel empathy for the people who have survived.

MOLLY: How do you do that?

MOM: You can do that in a couple of ways. You can talk about it from your own point of view, of how sad you feel for the parents who lost their kids, that this must be very hard for them.

Another way is to help the child feel less helpless. I think there are some schools that are making pictures or writing notes to the families, some activity that helps express how they feel and helps the child feel like she is actively doing something.

MOLLY: Draw a picture…?

MOM: Yes, maybe send something to the school… As humans, it helps us to feel like we can do something to offer help or comfort to others who are hurting.

This is a very difficult issue and it won’t go away tomorrow. It will be around for a while. There are no perfect answers about how to help children through a crisis like this. The most important thing is to be there for your children and to keep alert for any changes of behavior in because you’ll want to talk to them about that. This is very scary stuff. Very scary. People feel very vulnerable. I think in the end it’s helpful for a child to feel like they are doing something to help or offer comfort.

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