In light of the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Parenting OC has consulted The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapy for advice on how to talk to children about tragic events:
When a child finds out about a tragedy, such as the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., it is possible a child will be shaken, even if there are no obvious outward signs. Creating an open dialogue with your school-aged child about the situation is absolutely appropriate, especially if your child is old enough to ask you about it. In addition, if you are not talking with your child, the information can be received from other outlets such as discussions with friends or what is heard on the news, which can make your child feel vulnerable.
Having an open discussion with your child allows you to eliminate the possibility of inaccurate information your child may receive. The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists offers helpful steps to follow in communicating a disturbing event to your children.
1. Discover what your child knows. Explaining everything to your child may not be appropriate. First, try to uncover what they know and what they have questions about, and go from there. Above all, it is important to make sure that your child understands these types of events are rare.
2. Enforce information boundaries. Limit your child’s exposure to news coverage and request that other family members or people in your child’s immediate community refrain from discussing the details in front of them.
3. Provide a creative environment for expression.Children often express their thoughts and fears non-verbally, such as through art and play. An effective way for children to express their fears and anxieties is through play and art projects like drawing.Give them the opportunity to interact with their feelings by carving out some time for them to simply be with themselves to create.
4. Model appropriate reactions. Because children pick up on our moods and emotions, expressing measured fears and feelings will help them feel safe to share what they are experiencing.However, be careful about being overly reactive and emotional, which could scare your child.
5. Reinforce security.Reassure your child that you, their teachers and others are working to keep them safe. If your child is older, you may want to review any safety precautions that you as a family have put into place.
6. Manage your own expectations regarding your child’s reaction.It is important to understand that children may return to normal daily tasks before expressing any anxieties that may surface. There is no “right” or “wrong” response – it will be different for each child.
Your child may not want to immediately discuss his or her feelings and may prefer to do so over the course of a few days or weeks. Pay attention to any significant behavior changes in your child. Seek help from a therapist if your child seems noticeably more irritable, quiet, sad, and/or anxious. For those having difficulty coping with sadness, grief and loss due to this unspeakable tragedy or struggling with how to talk to your children about it, you may want to speak with a licensed marriage and family therapist.