Talking to Children about the Sandy Hook Tragedy

Written by Donna McClintock, COO with Children’s Choice Learning Centers, Inc.

Our hearts are broken … and our nation is reeling from one of the most horrific crimes we have ever faced. As we see the beautiful pictures come into focus of the first graders who were doing nothing more than innocently traveling into the world of learning, we cannot fathom why anyone would chose the violence that the precious children inside that school experienced. Our hearts and prayers are with each parent, grandparent, and family member directly affected by this heinous act. We weep with you, and we stand with you.

We cannot make sense of this loss, and we will never be able to explain to our children why this happened. Many things will be written about talking with children about this tragedy, and I know that concerned parents will look at various sources for guidance. However, I hope you will apply these two points when helping children deal with every situation in life: Ask andListen.

1.     Ask children the right questions.

a.     What do you know about what has happened?

i.     It is critical that adults find out what children have heard and to assess their level of understanding as the starting point of conversation. The younger the children, the less information you should allow them to hear. Shield them as much as possible from news of the tragedy.

ii.     Build on what they know and don’t add more details than they need to hear. Children’s brains cannot process the awful pain and sadness of events such as this one. Once you find out what they know, it is okay to say, “Yes, this has happened, but it is over now.”

iii.     Shield them from seeing the event replayed on television over and over. Children are very literal, and they may think that it is happening again and that children are stilled trapped in a closet. Let them know it is over, find out what they are worried about, and answer their questions.

b.     How does that make you feel?

i.     Children will typically express how they feel, and you can comfort them in tangible ways. If they are afraid of the “bad man,” you can assure them that he is no longer alive and could not come into their school.

ii.     Children think very concretely, and there is no reason to discuss the possibilities of a copycat scenario with a six-year-old. Keep your explanations simple and concrete and think of ways to assure your child that she is safe.

c.     Ask them specifically what you can do to make them feel safe but be confident and retain control.

i.     Children can be so honest and transparent and will often tell you exactly what they need to feel comforted. However, they also know how to use your vulnerability to get what they want. Hold your child, listen to him, and reassure him while moving toward restoring his routine.

ii.     While we may want to spend special time with our children for their sake or for our own, we should not give them control of their world. Children may think they want control; but at their core, it frightens them. If they are in control, they are making decisions as they go and that breeds insecurity. Children are comforted by living in a predictable environment where they can count on what is going to happen next.

2.     Listen to your children.

a.     Take extra time to hold and reassure them about their world in concrete ways.

i.         Children need you. You need them. They need your time. They need for you to listen to them. You need to listen to them. Children can sometimes surprise us with their insight and wisdom if we just stop talking and listen.

ii.         Children are amazing. Someone once said, “A child does not have to be taught how to be happy or the ways of love. It is fear, hatred, and prejudice that have to be taught.” Children know how to love unconditionally. They astound us sometimes when they open their mouths, and we can learn from them if we will just listen.

b.     Take the time to listen to your child … you CANNOT help her if you do not listen first. Remember this quote from Jesse Jackson: “Your children need your presence more than your presents.”

Ask the right questions and then listen as your child tells you what she feels, what she knows, and what she needs. It is perfectly okay to not have all the answers in life … no one does. Your child needs to know that you are available, that you care, and that she can confide in you and tell you anything. Good parenting is about building a strong relationship. It is about being honest, sincere, caring, and smart.

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