In the wake of Friday’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many parents across the country are left with the daunting task of how to talk with their children about such horrific circumstances. Many of us struggle with how to talk about difficult situations on a normal, everyday basis, and this is only further compounded by then having the worry of talking with a child and the sensitivity of a traumatic situation. The following suggestions are intended to help guide you in engaging with and comforting your children; they are by no means intended to be the only way to talk to your kids, please take what you like and leave the rest.
The first thing you may want to do is get a sense of how much your child actually knows about the situation at hand. Sometimes this can be the hardest part for parents, especially if your child isn’t talking about it. You may assume that because they aren’t talking they don’t know, or that you will be opening something up unnecessarily. We cannot assume that because nothing is being said that nothing is known, and this is true for children (and adults) of all ages. It seems the general consensus is that if the child is under five years old, they likely don’t know about it and should probably remain sheltered from it. But what if they have a classmate with an older sibling that knows and now it’s being talked about on the playground?
Then Listen and/or Watch. Let your child tell you what they know, what they heard happened, and how they feel about it. As parents it’s easy to want to direct or lead a conversation in a certain direction, or quickly correct misinformation or exaggerated details, but it is important for children to be able to express themselves fully.
It’s also important to know that many children don’t use their words to fully communicate how they are feeling, or what they are experiencing, either because they don’t yet have the words or they don’t yet know how to use them. Invite them to draw you a picture or play with dolls to act out what’s happening for them internally. Pay attention to changes in behaviors and play activities, they may provide you with information about your child’s inner world.
Be Honest and Normalize Your Child’s Feelings. Many children are going to be scared as a result of what happened on Friday, this is NORMAL. Of course they are scared. I am scared. Our job as parents is not to take away our child’s uncomfortable or painful feelings, but to offer comfort and meaningful connection through the feelings. It is not fair to tell your child that something like this will never happen again because unfortunately, we don’t know that that’s true. If we tell our children that bad things will not happen to them and then they do, all we’ve done is potentially shattered their ability to trust us. However, we can provide a sense of ease and safety for our children by validating how terrible this is and reassuring that circumstances like this are rare.
Turn off the TV. It’s easy to get sucked into the continuing coverage but it’s important to know that the images are traumatizing for the whole family. We need to find a balance of staying meaningfully connected to the situation but where we are not retraumatizing ourselves and our children by the repetition of disastrous images.
Be More Flexible. If you notice that your child is seeming a bit more clingy than usual and asking to sleep in your bed or be physically closer to you, let them. During times of trauma children, as well as adults, need extra care taking so that they can rebuild their foundation of trust and safety. They may need a few extra hugs and a few more “I love yous,” let them have it.
Answer questions as DIRECTLY as you can. Try to refrain from using too many metaphors or ambiguous language. Acknowledge, concretely, that there are adults who do bad things. However, emphasize that we do the best we can to keep them safe and that we always will. In the words of Mr. Rogers, encourage them to “look for the helpers.”
Don’t Hide Your Own Feelings. We are models for our children. You don’t have to be Hercules through this. You are a human being with feelings too. If you get emotional while talking about this with your kids, acknowledge your own feelings and sadness. The best thing we can do for our children is to teach them how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and to trust that we can hold space for our grief knowing that it is okay to feel sad and that we won’t feel this way forever.
Express Gratitude. Come together as a family and express gratitude that you are safe and secure. Acknowledge all of the gifts we have in our daily lives and how fortunate we truly are. Encourage your children to find ways to help those suffering, whether it’s through prayer (if you believe in this) or by drawing a picture to send. Giving back to others is a great way to stay connected to gratitude and aide us in our own healing.
Again, this list is intended as merely a suggestion, or starting point, to assist you in offering comfort to your children during this very difficult time. There is no one, right way to parent and we must each find for ourselves what feels best. I welcome any thoughts or reactions you may have and am available to answer any questions as well.