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Parents are urged to maintain calm, reassure children

In the aftermath of the killings of five girls at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, parents are anxious about how to talk to their children about recent school shootings. Crisis and psychiatric counselors urge parents to use common sense when discussing the subject with their children.

"At an emotional level, it is a very difficult subject for any parent," said Marguerite Alexander, an Ellicott City nurse who has a 9-year-old daughter. "The hard part is keeping them innocent and making them aware at the same time."

Though there have been three school shootings in the country during the past week, such tragedies are rare. Parents should keep this in mind, experts say.

"You are probably scared to death, but your kids are looking to see how you are reacting. Don't spill it over onto your kids. They don't need to be brought into the executive suite of angst," said Dr. John Walkup, a child psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. Parents should share their concerns with other adults -- and try to maintain perspective, he said.

"Car accidents are still a bigger thing for parents to worry about -- car accidents and drinking and driving," he said.

Once calm and collected, what might parents say? First, they should be the child's "debriefer" and rumor control, experts recommend. Rather than have your child read about the shooting or hear about it from friends (and risk hearing erroneous or exaggerated facts), take the initiative.

"I sort of ask if she's heard anything," Alexander said of talking to her daughter about serious events. "You don't need to give them more information than they're capable of handling."

Given the chilling details of the most recent schoolhouse killings, parents have the additional challenge of knowing how much to say.

"Be very straight with them. Tell them what happened -- not in graphic details -- that a very disturbed or sick man walked into the school and shot some children," said Dr. Jack Vaeth, a staff psychiatrist at Sheppard Pratt Health System. "Then tell them this is a very, very rare thing, and we don't think it would ever happen to you."

Tailored approach What parents share with their children should depend on the child's age and maturity. Lisa Bader of Clarksville has daughters in third and 10th grades and a son in seventh, so she knows that she and her husband, David, have to approach them differently when talking about a frightening event.

"It is different based on their understanding level," she said. "My high-schooler obviously gets more information and more truth. ... You have to judge each child and what they can handle, what won't keep them up at night." She said talking about a school shooting is like talking about other dangers.

"You let them know there are bad people out there and bad things happen and you just have to be aware," she said.

Toni Chance, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland's School of Social Work in Baltimore whose specialty is traumatized children, said she would not allow her 6-year-old daughter to watch the news of the Pennsylvania shootings.

"I feel it's unnecessary. I don't want to induce anxiety in her," she said. But parents need to reach out to older children, even if they aren't eager to initiate the conversation.

"Talk to them, feel them out. Reassure them they are safe in their schools," said Chance, who recommends that parents ask school administrators what plans are in place to prevent or detect intruders. Then, parents can tell their children about their school's emergency plan. This could help allay their fears, she said. Also, if your child is scared, tell teachers so they can be aware of the situation.

Decision time Gwen Salatino, 47, of Parkton, took the initiative in her household. She told her fifth-grader that he should try to get out of the room if he ever finds himself in a similar situation.

"Talk to some of your football buddies and make a decision," Salatino said she told her 10-year-old son, who attends 7th District Elementary School in northern Baltimore County. "I told him to tackle the person -- with a buddy."

As with other tragedies, experts say parents need to be the first line of communication. Teachers don't always discuss major news stories in class.

"Is this something that the schools are going to address, or do we?" said Jenn Langenberg, 35, while her 4-year-old daughter glided down a plastic slide at a tot lot in Rodgers Forge yesterday.

Susan Casler, a language-arts teacher at Crofton Middle School, decided not to talk with her students about Monday's shootings.

"At some point, kids don't need to hear from me about every awful thing," she said. "I think they would have been overwhelmed. They would have been fearful, if it could happen to the Amish in such a random fashion ... we've learned there is no unlikely place."

Casler and other teachers at Crofton Middle School did talk to their students during the sniper shootings in 2002 because of the shooting at a school in nearby Bowie and because the shootings had the potential to affect students directly.

But in this case, talking to students would only have alarmed them needlessly, she said: "They need to feel the schools are safe."

And parents need to remind their children of that.

"Nothing bad is going to happen. Go to school," Walkup said. "We all know at some level it's a lie -- we can't predict the future. But to say we are uncertain would just make our children more apprehensive."

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.comSun reporters Sandy Alexander, Arin Gencer and Anica Butler contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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