Editor's note: Joelle Kekhoua, a licensed psychologist and counselor and co-owner of The Mental Fitness Center in Rochester, offered these tips for talking to your children about the school shootings in Newtown. Kekhoua is the mom of three elementary school children.
As much as we want to shield our children from the horrific events of last week, they will eventually hear about it from the chatter on the playground or bus, from the glimpses of media coverage, or from overhearing whispers of our conversations with other adults.
They will wonder:
Who killed those children?
Will somebody do that to my school?
Am I safe?
Your child wants enough information to answer those basic questions and most importantly, to feel that they are safe. They may have a range of emotions from fear, anxiety and confusion, to empathy, anger, sadness and grief for those involved.
Here are some quick guidelines on how to help them wrap their innocent little brains around tragedy:
- Give them your ear and undivided attention to hear out all of their questions.
- Answer their questions in developmentally appropriate responses, (i.e. using language like “a bad guy” for younger children)
- Give them enough information to not leave any “blank” spots that they might try to fill in with their imagination -but do NOT give too much detail that will potentially fuel fear or create images in their heads that they do not need.
Dealing with emotion
- Offer assurance. Do NOT dismiss their emotions, but rather, validate them (i.e. “I know it can make you feel upset/ scared/ sad to think about what happened. We all get a little upset/ scared/ sad thinking about it… even adults. Actually, the whole country is feeling a little bit like you are feeling right now.”)
- Teach them how to comfort themselves and build their own internal strength (i.e. “Even though bad things can happen in this world, right now they are only “what ifs”. When you start to get scared, tell yourself you do not want to let fear of “what ifs” keep you from enjoying life and other people.)
Teaching safe behavior
- Use developmentally appropriate analogies to help teach them the difference between being careful and cautious of stranger danger and being too afraid to LIVE (i.e. looking both ways before crossing the street verses NEVER going in the street)
- Give them back a feeling of control and remove some of the helplessness that fuels the fear (i.e. “You can model for others how to be good people and hopefully make the world a better and safer place”.)
- Help them focus on being a helper instead of being a victim. If they continue to want to think about and discuss what happened over the coming weeks, guide them to focus on what they might be able to do to help support the families instead of thinking about the attacker or their current vulnerability/safety (i.e. they could organize a group sympathy card from their entire class, etc)