In the aftermath of last week's mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, it's natural for children all over Connecticut to be anxious and even frightened, not just about going to school but about life in general. Child guidance experts statewide say parents should not deny their kids' fears but should talk about them frankly and try to ease them with calmness, stability and love.
"Make sure you are honest. Don't tell them half-truths. Don't just say everything will be OK, because that will undermine their actual fears and coping skills," says Nicole DeRonck, counseling coordinator for Newington Public Schools and a past president of the Connecticut School Counselor Association (CSCA).
Hilary Hahn, project director of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, agrees. "You do need to talk about the shooting. Not talking about it raises the prospect that [kids] will feel even more threatened," Hahn says. "It will loom even larger in child's mind. If parents are silent it means parents can't handle it, because it's too horrible to be discussed."
DeRonck, Hahn and other professionals in the field of child wellness say that parents should not volunteer information to their children about the tragedy. Instead, parents — after first calming themselves down — should try to gently coax out of their kids what they already know and allow their children to ask whatever questions they want to ask.
Brien O'Callaghan, a family psychologist and school consultant in Brookfield and Fairfield, whose "School-Based Collaboration with Families" is used in many state public school systems to prevent violence, calls this "parenting by questions."
"Check out where the kids are at by starting at the simplest level. Ask 'Did anything happen yesterday?' or 'How are you?' or other very innocuous questions," says O'Callaghan, who in the past worked with kids at Sandy Hook, and since the massacre has counseled two Sandy Hook pupils. "Make sure you're not jumping to conclusions about what he or she may be thinking."
In the process of getting children to talk, and answering their questions, parents can lay the foundation for a more positive outlook.
"Little children need to know that something bad did happen, but it's over and it's taken care of. Tell them, 'the bad man hurt people and now the bad man is gone'," says Elaine Zimmerman, executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Children.
Some of the experts suggested role-playing would help small children express their emotions. DeRonck suggested using puppets for this. Glastonbury child psychologist Elaine Ducharme said on National Public Radio on Saturday that small children also could be encouraged to draw what they are feeling.
As for older children, Zimmerman says, "What with social media and the vast and speeding information network, don't presume children have been protected. You should assume they know much more than you think they know."
What they might "know," Zimmerman says, might not be factual. "You need to provide the right information to children," she says.
Let Kids Ask The Questions
Parents should never force any issue, the experts say, but should instead let the child's inquiries lead the discussion. And parents should remember that they are talking to a child. "Keep the amount of detail limited. Answer the question that is asked. ... Listen to what is actually being asked," Hahn says. "Kids might ask whether this would happen at their school. They're not looking for statistics. They want to be reassured by their parents."
Children of all age groups who are upset about the tragedy will feel most secure and balanced if they stick with their normal routine. "Whether they are 5 or 17, they need to feel assured that they are safe," Zimmerman says.
However, in some cases, maintaining routine might be difficult. A "Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide" produced by Hahn's network indicates that children's behaviors may change if they feel their security is threatened. Small children may become unusually quiet or agitated or afraid of being alone and may revert to babyish behaviors such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting or baby talk. Older children, fearing a recurrence of the disaster, may play the event in their heads over and over or may become convinced that what happened was their fault. They also might be plagued by bad dreams, become aggressive or restless or may show physical effects such as headaches or stomach aches.
DeRonck says that these behaviors may let up as the parents gently ease their kids back into normal life. "Encourage them to get back into their regular routine of clubs and peer groups. Encourage discussions with friends and school counselors," she says. "But don't force them to talk. Encourage it but don't push it, or you risk shutting them down."
Kids might fixate on different aspects of the tragedy, depending on age, Zimmerman says. While small children may just want reassurances that they and their schools are safe, "older children may want to talk about good and evil and death. ... They will feel relieved to have arealand deep converstion."
One important way to help kids cope, experts say, is to limit exposure to TV and the Internet. This is most vital for the littlest kids; older kids should be limited on a case-by-case basis.
"It is not helpful for people to see images over and over again of what happened and hear the discussion over and over again. Very young children get the impression that it's still ongoing, or of greater magnitude, than it is, even though that is hard to imagine," Hahn says. "Let me give you an example. After 9/11, young children who watched footage of the Twin Towers thought that hundreds of planes hit hundreds of buildings because they saw the images again and again. They were not able to determine that the same image was being shown again and again."
And although many towns are holding vigils in support of the Newtown families, Hahn suggests that children may not belong at vigils because their parents can't control other attendees' behavior.
"It's understandable that people want to gather and offer their support, but parents need to think carefully what the experience will be like for their children," she says. "It's likely that some community members will be very upset and will be talking very vehemently or loudly. It's extremely understandable, but it's frightening for young children.
"There are other ways to have social activities that the child can be involved with that the parents can manage and contain in ways they can't at a public event," Hahn says.
O'Callaghan says parents should approach public vigils in the same way they would approach an open-casket funeral: Some kids can handle it and some can't. "Check with the child. Ask 'what do you think?' They have minds of their own," he says.
Parents who need help dealing with the trauma or want to help their children cope, can visit http://www.211ct.org/Parents/Trauma.asp. The 211 website, affiliated with the United Way and the state government, was updated this week with referrals to resources specifically targeted toward the Newtown tragedy.
Tips For Coping
The National Association of School Psychologists released a statement offering tips to help parents help their kids cope with the tragedy. Among the suggestions:
Keep explanations developmentally appropriate;
Emphasize that schools are safe places, and explain why, along with reviewing safety procedures;
Remind them that everyone plays a role in school safety;
Tell them that reporting information that appears dangerous is not tattling;
Tell them not to dwell on the worst possibilties;
Counsel them that sometimes bad people do things that hurt others, but that senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand;
Warn them to stay away from guns;
Instruct them that violence is never a solution to personal problems.