How do you explain such a tragedy to kids?
Share with others:
The scenes from Sandy Hook Elementary School were heartbreaking, the facts unimaginable. And in the days to come, many children in Pittsburgh and around the country are likely to see and hear them.
As parents, teachers and psychologists scramble to deal with the fallout of one of the largest and most horrific school shootings the country ever has experienced, experts say the right approach can help children deal with an event that could deeply trouble them.
First, parents, grandparents and other caregivers must control their own emotions, said Anthony Mannarino, director of the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents at Allegheny General Hospital.
"This is such a horrible event that I think we all need to try to be composed and able to talk with our children and grandchildren in a manner that's not going to exacerbate their anxieties," Dr. Mannarino said. "We need to keep it together ourselves."
Children younger than 7 years old, he said, should be kept away from TV news coverage of the shooting to limit possible stress reactions, such as trouble sleeping, nightmares, irritability and anxiety about separating from parents or going to school.
Such symptoms, however, almost certainly will disappear within a week in children who did not directly experience the shooting, Dr. Mannarino said.
If young children do learn of the shooting, or if parents are dealing with kids ages 7 and older, it's important to answer questions truthfully and present the correct information in an age-appropriate way, he said. Parents should also gently correct any inaccurate information or misconceptions.
With those older children -- who almost certainly will find out about the shooting one way or another -- parents should initiate the conversation, ask children what they already know, give them a chance to ask questions and talk about their feelings, and reassure them that they are safe, he said.
"Given the number of incidents that have happened lately, it may seem like they're common but these incidents are still relatively rare and particularly with young kids, we can offer them some sense their school is still safe," he said.
Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and nationally recognized expert in traumatic events effecting children and adolescents, reminded parents to guard their words about the shooting in front of their children, and suggested giving them a chance to use drawing, painting, play and their own storytelling to work through any anxieties.
Like Dr. Mannarino, she emphasized the need to listen to children's fears, to reassure them they are safe and tell them that they will not be harmed. Continuing with normal routines can also help soothe worried children, she said in a statement.
Parents also should try to be especially available to their children, giving them extra time and help to fall asleep, for instance, if necessary.
"Parents and children throughout the country are likely to be affected by this trauma and an increase in anxiety, fears, problems separating and sleeping are likely to occur for children and adolescents," said Dr. Lipkins, who was widely interviewed after the Virginia Tech tragedy. "If parents remain calm, monitor the information that is being shared with their children, and reassure them of their own personal safety, post-traumatic effects can be minimized."
First Published December 15, 2012 12:00 am