We are absolutely heartbroken to have to be sharing these tips. But in the aftermath of the horrific Newtown, Conn., school shooting, images of terrfied children and adults will be ubiquitous in every form of media for days to come. Parents might be dealing with sad and scared kids, children who will ask about what happened in Newtown, whether it can happen to them. Then there is the unanswerable: "how could this happen?"
If you are struggling with the right thing to say, these tips from Dr. Paul Coleman, may help provide some solace. Goldman is a psychologist and author of How to Say It to Your Child When Bad Things Happen and has extensive experience specializing in anxiety disorders and marriage and family concerns.
- Be a soothing example. If you are personally traumatized in any way by the events in Newton, do your best to model calm. “Kids pay close attention to their parent's mood, so you should show this is all temporary,” says Dr. Coleman. If you and your family are all safe and sound, “you can convey, yes, it’s stressful, but eventually things will get back to normal.” Emphasize the things that are already back to normal or that stayed the same throughout, like their family or favorite toys.
- Ask questions before explaining. “Don’t rush in with an explanation without first trying to understand what your kids are worried about,” says Dr. Coleman. “Don’t be too quick to tell them not worry about it. Explore it a little.” Once you know their specific concerns—are they worried about something similar happening to them or you–you can address them specifically and then reassure them.
- Don't label feelings as wrong. Let them know that their feelings make sense, and that it's ok to feel whatever they're feeling. Never make them feel bad about being scared or worried.
- Use your judgment about watching the news. “You have to know your child,” says Dr. Coleman. “If they are young and impressionable, you might want to shield them. If your child is older, it can be a teaching moment.”
- Wait until they're older. Until around age 7, Dr. Coleman suggests only addressing the tough stuff if kids bring it up first. "They might see it on TV or hear about it at school (or heaven forbid even witness it), and then you have to deal with it. But younger children might not be able to handle it well," says Dr. Coleman.
- Keep it black and white. Yes, the world can be a cruel place, but little kids, well, can't handle the truth."Younger kids need to be reassured that this isn't happening to them and won't happen to them," says Dr. Coleman. Parents may feel like they're lying, since no one can ever be 100% sure of what the future holds, but probability estimates are not something small kids can grasp, and won't comfort them.