The best you can do after school today, tomorrow -- any day, really, from now on -- is be prepared. Starting today, your children will have more information than you've given them about what happened in Newtown. Some of it will be accurate, some of it won't be. Depending on the age of a child or the age of the child who passed along so-called information, it will be tinted by magical thinking, that wonderful, imaginative ability children have to make connections that have no basis in reality. So, yes, we have to be prepared because something she or he will say may take your breath away, may confound you, may move you to tears. Please -- this is a good place to share those snippets and to share your struggles. If you have questions, I'll try to be as helpful as possible and to respond as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, let's start with ourselves. If you find yourself welling up in front of your child of any age, you don't to need hold back. It's OK to have honest emotion in front of your children. To a child of any age, but especially those under 8, say simply, "This just make me so sad." Here's the caveat: You need to recover and move on, and they need to see that. Wipe your tears, offer a hug, and continue with whatever you were doing. If you can't do that -- if you are so stricken by fear for your child or you're unable to stop crying or control when your sadness strikes -- seek professional guidance.
In general, here's what's true for any age child:
They will have questions, they will want to talk about this, but when and how depends on each child. Some children will need permission to talk about it: If this comes on the heels of a trauma or loss in your family, even young children may worry that talking about Newtown will upset you more so they will avoid talking about it.
Here's how you give permission. Ask an open-ended question: "Did you hear about Newtown (or whatever word you've been using to describe the tragedy) at school today?" With children under 6, if you haven't established a baseline conversation, ask this question instead: "Have you heard about a place called Newtown?"
Some children will say "No," even if the answer is yes. Maybe they just aren't in the mood to talk, maybe they are still processing what they've heard. Here's where the permission piece comes in. Say, "Well, Newtown is a town in Connecticut. if you have any questions about it, it's OK to ask me." You don't need to connect all the dots for children under 7, all you need to do is let them know you're available.
If a child says yes, here's your response: "Tell me what you know."
This is perhaps the most important words you can speak. Your goal is twofold: to help your children process information, and to make sure they know you are an askable parent --THE person they can come to for honest, truthful information. But you want to give children under 10 information they can handle, in sounds bites they can digest. The best way to do that is to speak to what they are thinking about. So you need to know what they know, you need to know what piece of all the many pieces they are processing, at this moment in time. It may not be what you expect. Maybe your first-grader blurts out: "Teachers died"!"
Keep your response simple and truthful: "Yes, that's true." That's enough to say. Allow for a pause.
"I don't want my teacher to die!"
Now your job is to affirm his feelings: "I know! Of course we don't want your teacher to die."
Allow for a pause. See where he goes. And now here comes the piece that you may not feel 100% but you need to say for your child's peace of mind: "Your school is doing everything it can to keep your teachers safe, and the students, too."
Again, pause and see where this goes. That may be enough.
Dear readers, this is a hard time for all parents, for all kids. Keep the channels open. Please send in your questions about conversations you have with your kids of all ages. I'll respond as quickly as possible.