At least 25 people, including 18 children, were killed this morning in a frightening massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Children will no doubt hear about this and wonder whether it’s safe to go to school. After the July movie theater killings in Aurora, Colorado, I spoke with Boston-area mental health specialists on how parents should talk to their children about horrific news events. Here’s what they recommended:
1. Validate their feelings. “Let them understand that they are entitled to feel how they’re feeling,” said Elizabeth Stults, a licensed mental health counselor who has a pediatric practice in the Back Bay area. They might be scared, angry, or anxious, or they might not be affected much at all since it happened far from where they live.
2. Explain that events like these are very rare. Although parents can’t tell kids that a school shooting or movie theater shooting will never happen in Boston, they can stress the point that such occurrences are very rare, which is why they’re big news when they do happen.
3. Feel free to answer “I don’t know” to tough questions. Kids may ask why the shooter killed elementary school kids and teachers. Or they may wonder how God could allow this to happen. “Sometimes you have to say, I don’t have an answer to that, or what do you think?” said Karen Ruskin, a psychotherapist based in Sharon. “Just make sure you answer honestly.”
4. Give kids a little leeway to deal with their anxieties. If a child wants a parent to walk him or her into school for a few days, try to accommodate that request. “But also explain that we can’t stop living our life,” said Stults.
5. Develop a safety plan if such an event ever did occur. This can help kids gain a sense of control. “Talk to them about what they could do if someone started shooting,” said Ruskin. “Maybe run at super-speed or hide under the chair.” Kids will feel more secure if they have a plan in mind for dealing with the unthinkable.
6. Keep the conversation at your child’s age level. “If your kid is young and hasn’t heard about it,” said Ruskin, “you don’t need to discuss it,” especially if your child doesn’t bring it up. On the other hand, parents may want to start a conversation with older kids who are likely to read the news on the Internet or hear about it from friends. “If children don’t want to talk about it, that’s okay,” Ruskin added. “Don’t make your issues into their issues.”Deborah Kotz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.