The killings at a Connecticut elementary school on Friday left some parents struggling to figure out what, if anything, to tell their children.
President Barack Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, would tell their daughters that they love them and hug them a little tighter. Experts say that’s a good example to follow. Parents also should allow children to talk about their feelings in the coming days while sheltering them from the 24/7 media coverage of the event, they say.
A man gunned down more than two dozen people Friday, most of them kids at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school. The shooter was among the 28 people left dead, apparently from a self-inflicted wound.
Deena Smith, a second grade teacher at Park Elementary School in Great Bend, didn’t hear about the shootings until after school. Her 3-year-old daughter is too young to know what happened, but her sons, students at Great Bend Middle School and Holy Family School, watched the news that evening with Deena and his husband Chris. “My kids were very tuned in to the TV,” she said. “They had tears in their eyes – we all did. I can’t imagine someone doing this. ... We gave them an extra hug and a kiss good night.”
Even the youngest schoolchildren are likely to hear about it, said Glenn Saxe, chairman of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center.
“It’s really important, especially at this time, for parents to check in with their kids, to be attuned to how they’re feeling, how they’re doing, and to answer questions honestly and straightforwardly,” he said. “For any other kid in school, this has meaning. Parents need to understand that even in surprising ways, this can affect their kids.”
Parents can start by asking their children what they’ve already heard and what questions they have, said Leonard Kaiser, a therapist at The Center for Counseling and Consultation in Great Bend. “There’s no need to go into details that they aren’t curious about,” he said. “Answer their questions in an age-appropriate way.”
If they ask why someone would do something like this, it’s OK to say you don’t know, said Dr. David Schonfeld, a pediatrician and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
“I wouldn’t provide false reassurance or dismiss legitimate concerns,” he said. “We don’t help children by telling them they shouldn’t be afraid of things that are frightening.”
Parents can tell their kids, “What is most important is that you’re safe and you’re going to be safe,” said Dr. Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Above all, parents need to try to help their children feel safe, he said. Helping kids return to or maintain normal routines can help minimize their anxiety.
“Reassure them that they’re safe,” Kaiser said. Remind them of safety drills and plans in place at their school. “Every adult in that school is doing everything they can to keep them safe.” Parents should watch their children for cues, and realize the children will also be taking cues from them, he said.
Parents of young children should keep their children from hearing reports on TV, radio, and social media and they should closely monitor exposure to media for all children, several experts said. Children who show persistent signs of anxiety and stress, including recurring nightmares or sleep problems and fears about leaving home, should see their pediatrician or a mental health expert, Kraus said.
Children may need a release for their emotional responses, Kaiser said. “They can identify with the fact that (the victims) were in school.” Kaiser said they may want to write a letter or draw a picture, or find and donate to a fund set up for victims. “Encourage them to reach out and pray. That process itself is very therapeutic.”
Events such as school shootings may trigger unexpected feelings in children, Kaiser said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity as a parent to really open that door and find out what’s going on in their life. A huge piece to all of this is talking.” Parents who are concerned about their child but not comfortable about talking can encourage them to talk to a minister or a school counselor.
As students head back to their classrooms on Monday, parents and children should know that school shootings are rare and schools still are among the safest places, said William Lassiter of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence. Parents can ask their principal or parent-teacher group for a copy of their school crisis plan.
Great Bend USD 428 schools limit access during the day – usually only one door is unlocked and people are required to check in at the front office. At Holy Family School the front door is locked, and people must push a buzzer and identify themselves to be allowed entry.
Schools should have an emergency plan that is available to parents that explains what the school will do in various emergencies, such as a fire, hazardous materials spill, lockdown or evacuation. It should also say how the school will communicate with the parents: for example on its Twitter feed, Facebook page, website, or by e-mail or automated phone call, said Kitty Porterfield, a spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators.