Nitty-gritty of talking to your kids about Newtown

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 17, 2012 06:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

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.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

12 comments so far...
  1. Hi Barbara,
    My daughter is less than 2. We have not addressed the horrible situation in Newtown with her, as she doesn't watch the news or have any way of hearing about it thus far. She is in the toddler room at daycare, should I assume that we do not need to discuss this with her as she is too young to even know what dying is (I think - we have never lost any people or pets since she was born so we haven't had any reason to have it come up)?

    Also, you mention above that if you break down and can't get it together quickly you should seek professional guidance. Can you expand on what you mean by that? I have been much more emotional since my daughter was born and pretty much every time I see something about the events in Newtown I start crying and sometimes it takes a while (10 minutes) for me to regain composure. So far it hasn't happened in front of my little girl. Are you saying I need professional help? Thanks in advance.

    Posted by Beginning to wonder about my mental health, and parenting skills.. December 17, 12 12:49 PM
  1. My daughter asked if this can happen at her school. I said "Things like this are very rare. They dont happen often. It will probably never happen at your school." She seemed fine with that answer...should I have said "No it defenitely wont"...god forbid anything ever did..but shes old enough to know that i dont know that for sure. That I cant predict the future.

    Posted by Greg December 17, 12 01:39 PM
  1. Greg, that was a terrific answer. Don't make a promise or a guarantee you can't keep, not with any age child but especially not with one old enough to know you can't keep it. But there is something you can add to your answer, even now: "I'm going to a meeting (if that's true)/checking with the principal/school system to learn more about the security at our schools so I know they are as safe as possible."

    Posted by Barbara Meltz December 17, 12 02:57 PM
  1. We had a meeting about it Saturday night with my three, all under 10. We told them they would probably hear about this at school this week, so we wanted them to hear it from us first. I gave them very basics, without any details. My 7 year old asked how did he get the guns? My 8 year old asked if any really young kids died, which was a tough question. I told them "some" children died but moved on to reassure them the nothing like this will happen at their school and that we have zero worries about it happening. I'm interested to see what happened today at school. I understand the principal was going to speak to each class.

    Posted by Stacie December 17, 12 03:37 PM
  1. Dear Beginning to wonder,
    First of all, no, it is not necessary to talk to a child this young, although saying directly to her, in a quiet way, "Something awful happened, I know you don't understand, but I want you to know I'll always do everything I can to keep you safe," may make you feel better. Meanwhile, though, I'm wondering if it's possible you've had a touch of Post Partum Depression for some time now. When a mom feels blue, especially over a period of time, even babies pick up on those vibes and can be affected. I am not a medical professional but it certainly sounds like a consult with a mental health worker (start with your ob/gyn or GP) couldn't hurt.

    Posted by Barbara Meltz December 17, 12 03:56 PM
  1. Thank you for all of the helpful tips. We have sheltered our 5 and 8 year old kids from the news all weekend, but my 8 year old did hear about what happened in CT at school yesterday. I am trying to gauge what she knows, but she won't say and chooses not to talk about it. Question: Should I keep pushing and asking if she wants to talk about it? Or let it be? She is a sensitive child who keeps her emotions inside...and if she knows anything beyond "something happened in CT", then I'd like to reassure her of her safety, etc. Yet don't want to go there if she is still in the dark. Thoughts?

    Posted by Mia December 18, 12 06:51 AM
  1. Mia, Don't push it but don't drop it. She likely is processing what she's heard. Ask open-ended questions as I've described and make sure to provide quiet, alone time with each of your kids. Today will be different than yesterday. Kids talk to each other. She will likely come home with more or different information today so give her new openings, including ones like this, that might validate her feelings: "Whenever I think about what happened in Newtown, it makes me so sad." Or this, which reminds her that it's OK to talk to you: "If you hear anything you want to ask me about, it's OK."

    Posted by Barbara Meltz December 18, 12 10:19 AM
  1. As a parent I am frustrated hearing so much along the lines of...

    "I tried to shelter my kids from anything bad, but the mean old world keeps spilling the beans...it's not fair for those people to put me in the situation to have to tell my kids about evil."

    Don't completely keep kids out of the loop...they sense something is going on and it can be very disturbing for a child to know that something (probably something bad) is being deliberately hidden from them, and it makes it harder for them to trust you.

    Posted by di December 18, 12 02:35 PM
  1. I grappled as to whether I should tell my 6 and 8 year olds...I finally did tell them. To my surprise, my 6 year old had more questions than my 8 year old, such as "Why are there bad people like that?" to which I could not answer. As for me, I find myself breaking down at the sheer mention of the town name. I am a parent of children the age of those precious treasures and I wish someone could also explain this to me...

    Posted by Lee December 18, 12 07:10 PM
  1. Lee, I too am a parent of a 3 and 6 year old as many of the people who post here are. There would be something terribly wrong if we didn't break down to such tragedies. I did my share of crying and still do now that the funerals are going on. I talked to my 6 year old about how something bad happened and his response was the same as your 6 year old...."why are there criminals in the world?" he said. How can I answer that!? I don't like to shelter my kids from things that happen like this but we can only explain as much as what is age appropriate and what is appropriate for our OWN children. The key is figuring out HOW much is too much or how little is too little?

    Posted by jd December 19, 12 08:03 AM
  1. To Lee and JD and all of you who are struggling with what to say to young children:
    It's important to validate their feelings -- yes, this was a terrible thing, and it's true, there are some bad people in the world -- but it's equally important to move them beyond that. Finding something concrete to do helps: drawing a picture and mailing it to the first responders in Newton, thanking them for all their help, or a similar drawing to send to the school system there, or to families. This action of reaching out can help a child gain some control over feelings, so he feels less helpless.
    Remember also that, with children, this is not a one-time conversation. The same or similar conversation may happen over and over, as they process new bits and pieces. You have to be patient!
    And here's a book recommendation to read with your young children (5 through 9 or so): "Why Did It Happen? Helping children cope in a violent world" by Janice Cohn, DSW.

    Posted by Barbara Meltz December 19, 12 10:56 AM
  1. I found the advice from Mr. Rogers (making the rounds on social media) poignant - where he describes how his mother pointed out 'all the helpers' following a tragedy - ie, not everyone is evil/terrible/criminal/insert appropriate word here.

    I also have a 3 and 6 year old, and they share names with the victims which just breaks my heart, and makes me very emotional. I appreciate these comments. We do not watch TV or listen to radio news, my info has been limited to online, and I have curbed my intake as well. We have not talked about this at home with the kids. I now wonder if I should broach the subject with my older child.

    Our schools told us that they planned to NOT discuss with the younger grades and were closely monitoring situations where older kids may be in contact with younger kids. There was a plan in place to offer support and conversation to those who needed it - and similar language to the 'permission' referenced above, to be used with children talking about the tragedy at school, but mostly to steer conversation back home if needed.

    We are from a town recovering from a very visible violent death this year, so unfortunately this is not new territory. Of course the scope is very different, and in a way, hits even closer to home than what occurred just a few blocks away. I think I have had my head in the sand about this, so thanks for raising these tough questions and offering this forum.

    Posted by dc December 19, 12 01:01 PM
 
12 comments so far...
  1. Hi Barbara,
    My daughter is less than 2. We have not addressed the horrible situation in Newtown with her, as she doesn't watch the news or have any way of hearing about it thus far. She is in the toddler room at daycare, should I assume that we do not need to discuss this with her as she is too young to even know what dying is (I think - we have never lost any people or pets since she was born so we haven't had any reason to have it come up)?

    Also, you mention above that if you break down and can't get it together quickly you should seek professional guidance. Can you expand on what you mean by that? I have been much more emotional since my daughter was born and pretty much every time I see something about the events in Newtown I start crying and sometimes it takes a while (10 minutes) for me to regain composure. So far it hasn't happened in front of my little girl. Are you saying I need professional help? Thanks in advance.

    Posted by Beginning to wonder about my mental health, and parenting skills.. December 17, 12 12:49 PM
  1. My daughter asked if this can happen at her school. I said "Things like this are very rare. They dont happen often. It will probably never happen at your school." She seemed fine with that answer...should I have said "No it defenitely wont"...god forbid anything ever did..but shes old enough to know that i dont know that for sure. That I cant predict the future.

    Posted by Greg December 17, 12 01:39 PM
  1. Greg, that was a terrific answer. Don't make a promise or a guarantee you can't keep, not with any age child but especially not with one old enough to know you can't keep it. But there is something you can add to your answer, even now: "I'm going to a meeting (if that's true)/checking with the principal/school system to learn more about the security at our schools so I know they are as safe as possible."

    Posted by Barbara Meltz December 17, 12 02:57 PM
  1. We had a meeting about it Saturday night with my three, all under 10. We told them they would probably hear about this at school this week, so we wanted them to hear it from us first. I gave them very basics, without any details. My 7 year old asked how did he get the guns? My 8 year old asked if any really young kids died, which was a tough question. I told them "some" children died but moved on to reassure them the nothing like this will happen at their school and that we have zero worries about it happening. I'm interested to see what happened today at school. I understand the principal was going to speak to each class.

    Posted by Stacie December 17, 12 03:37 PM
  1. Dear Beginning to wonder,
    First of all, no, it is not necessary to talk to a child this young, although saying directly to her, in a quiet way, "Something awful happened, I know you don't understand, but I want you to know I'll always do everything I can to keep you safe," may make you feel better. Meanwhile, though, I'm wondering if it's possible you've had a touch of Post Partum Depression for some time now. When a mom feels blue, especially over a period of time, even babies pick up on those vibes and can be affected. I am not a medical professional but it certainly sounds like a consult with a mental health worker (start with your ob/gyn or GP) couldn't hurt.

    Posted by Barbara Meltz December 17, 12 03:56 PM
  1. Thank you for all of the helpful tips. We have sheltered our 5 and 8 year old kids from the news all weekend, but my 8 year old did hear about what happened in CT at school yesterday. I am trying to gauge what she knows, but she won't say and chooses not to talk about it. Question: Should I keep pushing and asking if she wants to talk about it? Or let it be? She is a sensitive child who keeps her emotions inside...and if she knows anything beyond "something happened in CT", then I'd like to reassure her of her safety, etc. Yet don't want to go there if she is still in the dark. Thoughts?

    Posted by Mia December 18, 12 06:51 AM
  1. Mia, Don't push it but don't drop it. She likely is processing what she's heard. Ask open-ended questions as I've described and make sure to provide quiet, alone time with each of your kids. Today will be different than yesterday. Kids talk to each other. She will likely come home with more or different information today so give her new openings, including ones like this, that might validate her feelings: "Whenever I think about what happened in Newtown, it makes me so sad." Or this, which reminds her that it's OK to talk to you: "If you hear anything you want to ask me about, it's OK."

    Posted by Barbara Meltz December 18, 12 10:19 AM
  1. As a parent I am frustrated hearing so much along the lines of...

    "I tried to shelter my kids from anything bad, but the mean old world keeps spilling the beans...it's not fair for those people to put me in the situation to have to tell my kids about evil."

    Don't completely keep kids out of the loop...they sense something is going on and it can be very disturbing for a child to know that something (probably something bad) is being deliberately hidden from them, and it makes it harder for them to trust you.

    Posted by di December 18, 12 02:35 PM
  1. I grappled as to whether I should tell my 6 and 8 year olds...I finally did tell them. To my surprise, my 6 year old had more questions than my 8 year old, such as "Why are there bad people like that?" to which I could not answer. As for me, I find myself breaking down at the sheer mention of the town name. I am a parent of children the age of those precious treasures and I wish someone could also explain this to me...

    Posted by Lee December 18, 12 07:10 PM
  1. Lee, I too am a parent of a 3 and 6 year old as many of the people who post here are. There would be something terribly wrong if we didn't break down to such tragedies. I did my share of crying and still do now that the funerals are going on. I talked to my 6 year old about how something bad happened and his response was the same as your 6 year old...."why are there criminals in the world?" he said. How can I answer that!? I don't like to shelter my kids from things that happen like this but we can only explain as much as what is age appropriate and what is appropriate for our OWN children. The key is figuring out HOW much is too much or how little is too little?

    Posted by jd December 19, 12 08:03 AM
  1. To Lee and JD and all of you who are struggling with what to say to young children:
    It's important to validate their feelings -- yes, this was a terrible thing, and it's true, there are some bad people in the world -- but it's equally important to move them beyond that. Finding something concrete to do helps: drawing a picture and mailing it to the first responders in Newton, thanking them for all their help, or a similar drawing to send to the school system there, or to families. This action of reaching out can help a child gain some control over feelings, so he feels less helpless.
    Remember also that, with children, this is not a one-time conversation. The same or similar conversation may happen over and over, as they process new bits and pieces. You have to be patient!
    And here's a book recommendation to read with your young children (5 through 9 or so): "Why Did It Happen? Helping children cope in a violent world" by Janice Cohn, DSW.

    Posted by Barbara Meltz December 19, 12 10:56 AM
  1. I found the advice from Mr. Rogers (making the rounds on social media) poignant - where he describes how his mother pointed out 'all the helpers' following a tragedy - ie, not everyone is evil/terrible/criminal/insert appropriate word here.

    I also have a 3 and 6 year old, and they share names with the victims which just breaks my heart, and makes me very emotional. I appreciate these comments. We do not watch TV or listen to radio news, my info has been limited to online, and I have curbed my intake as well. We have not talked about this at home with the kids. I now wonder if I should broach the subject with my older child.

    Our schools told us that they planned to NOT discuss with the younger grades and were closely monitoring situations where older kids may be in contact with younger kids. There was a plan in place to offer support and conversation to those who needed it - and similar language to the 'permission' referenced above, to be used with children talking about the tragedy at school, but mostly to steer conversation back home if needed.

    We are from a town recovering from a very visible violent death this year, so unfortunately this is not new territory. Of course the scope is very different, and in a way, hits even closer to home than what occurred just a few blocks away. I think I have had my head in the sand about this, so thanks for raising these tough questions and offering this forum.

    Posted by dc December 19, 12 01:01 PM
add your comment
Required
Required (will not be published)

This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.

About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

Submit a question for Barbara's Mailbag


Ask Barbara a question

Barbara answers questions on a wide range of topics, including autism, breastfeeding, bullying, discipline, divorce, kindergarten, potty training, sleep, tantrums, and much, much more.

Send your questions to her at:
meltzbarbara (at) gmail.com.
Please include your name and hometown.
Moms
All parenting discussions
Discussions

High needs/fussy baby

memes98 writes "My 10.5 month old DS has been fussy ever since he was born, but I am getting very frustrated because I thought he would be much better by now...has anyone else been through this?"

More community voices

Corner Kicks

Dirty Old Boston

Mortal Matters

On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street

RSS feed


click here to subscribe to
Child Caring

archives