Our hearts ache over the Sandy Hook tragedy! When such evil is committed, we wonder, "How do we talk to our kids about this? What do we say?"
Children have an incredible capacity for strength, and we can help them cope by following some practical guidelines:
#1: Be honest about your emotions while modeling strength.
Our children will cope only as well as we do. Children who see their parents overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, and grief also will become overwhelmed. On the other hand, kids will not have an opportunity to learn healthy expression of feelings if parents stuff their feelings inside.
The key is being honest about your emotions while showing that your family remains strong. For example, you might give your child a hug and say:
This is a very sad thing. Sometimes I feel like crying about it. It also makes me mad. But I know that we will be okay…because we are strong!
#2: Limit your child's exposure to media coverage of the event.
Turn the television and radio off when your kids are in the room. Repeated exposure to the visual and spoken images of the tragedy will create more anxiety and fear. Younger children who don't understand that the scenes are being replayed often believe the actual events keep happening over and over.
#3: Give them the facts about the event.
Don't try to keep the tragedy a secret! First, it's simply impossible to do. Second, humans create information when they lack it. When children get bits and pieces of bad news, they "fill in the blanks" with their imagination. Typically their fears, or rumors that float about at school, produce more anxiety than the truth.
Children, even as young as two years old, may need you to lay out the facts about the event. Tell them the basics, while leaving out the more sensitive details. Remember, your tone of voice must communicate compassion and strength.
#4: Listen, listen, listen.
There is nothing more powerful than an open ear, heartfelt understanding, and a warm hug.
#5: Let them know that they are safe.
Our children need to hear about the thousands and thousands of wonderful people who are working day and night to keep us safe. Despite any fears or doubts we may have, our kids need to hear that they are safe.
Make your reassurance short and to the point. When parents spend too much time, too many words, and too many emotions trying to reassure kids that they are safe, it backfires. Your message will be more powerful and believable if it is very brief and business-like:
There are thousands of people working to keep everyone safe. We are going to be okay. Have a good day at school. I love you.
#6: To the greatest extent possible, maintain daily routines.
Daily routines give all of us a sense of predictability, control, and safety. When we stick with them, we also communicate to our youngsters that we are strong enough to keep going… and they are too.
#7: Involve them in helping others.
There are few things more therapeutic than helping others. Even actions that may seem small, such as writing letters of support or sending a box of food to rescue workers, can mean a great deal.
For more information about how to help kids cope with tragedy, listen to our audio download, Grief Trauma and Loss. All proceeds from the sale of this audio download will be donated to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for caring! Our goal is to help as many families as possible. If this is a benefit, forward it to a friend.
Dr. Charles Fay