Experts: How To Talk To Kids About School Shootings

Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., following a reported shooting there Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks)

Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., following a reported shooting there Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks)


Would that it were not so, but we are all too well-practiced at breaking the news of horrifying events to our children. As one teacher put it: “We can’t just tell them they’re safe anymore.” Not even at school.

But at least all that experience means we have specialists familiar with how to inform and comfort children in — that much-loved phrase — developmentally appropriate ways.

The American Academy of Pediatrics just issued this message:

Today is a day of sadness and grief for everyone who cares for children. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers its deepest sympathies to everyone affected by today’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Pediatricians and other child health experts strongly recommend that schools and parents avail themselves of resources to help them talk with children about this disaster. As in any frightening situation, young children should not be exposed to the extensive media coverage of the event — in other words, turn off the TV, computer, and other media devices. The AAP offers resources for talking to children about disasters, and advice on watching for signs of stress and trauma here:
http://tinyurl.com/bqx4bno
Parents also can use their child’s pediatrician as a source of advice and support during this time.

Particularly useful: Tips for talking to children after a disaster. Many schools will address the Newtown shooting when they’re back in session on Monday, as they did after 9/11. For the meanwhile, University of Houston research professor Brene Brown offers a helpful list of other resources for talking to kids about violence here, including:

University of Minnesota on Talking to Kids About Violence Against Kids

National Association of School Psychologists on Talking to Children About Violence

What I consider to be one of the best articles on talking to children about death (by Hospice)

Explaining the news to our kids from Common Sense Media.

And this wonderful advice from Mr. Rogers (shared by Angel Marie):

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

Another bit of advice, this one religion-based: This from the First Presbyterian Church of Anselmo.

It came in an email along with this sensible point:

Please turn off news reports while young children are around. The reports will be shown repeatedly, and both the images and the words can be traumatizing if seen even once.
And many children would believe the horror is happening repeatedly, as many times as the report is shown.

And this from Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital:

Words elude me. We expect schools to be safe places of nurture, learning, and joyful creativity. That children and those dedicated to teaching them were the victims of senseless slaughter is disquieting and disorienting. In our desire to regain control of the chaos within, we must be mindful to help our children, our families, and our communities to heal, rather than seek someone or something to blame. Now it is what we do, rather than say, that will speak most loudly to our children and make the most difference to their future. It would be best to avoid radio, TV, or online news with your children – the immediacy makes this seem as if “you are there.” It will frighten them, making them feel vulnerable at school and at home.

As after Columbine, there is already talk, but no evidence, about the influence of a violent media culture. We do not advance our understanding of the complexities of this, or any human violence, by speculating on what contributed to this madness. Instead, we should try to create in our own lives what Ernest Hemingway called “a clean, well-lighted place”. In school and in play, our children learn about the world and how to behave in it from everything they do – and everything they see us do. Instead of being frightened and angry, find empathy and share the grief. Together, we can weather even the scariest experiences and learn to make a better world for the future. Teach your children well, their father’s hell will slowly go by.

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  • Allie

    Thank you for posting this. As my preschooler naps right now, I am bawling over the events of today and wondering how I’ll ever be able to explain evil to my daughter. (I don’t planning on telling her anything about today, but it terrifies me that I will have to explain other violence in the future. I feel so unequipped, but these links help. I especially appreciate the Mr. Rogers advice. It’s helping me a lot right now.