Images of today’s school massacre in Connecticut are flooding the airwaves and social media, with updates arriving every few seconds.
The killings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., are a reminder that violence can strike anywhere. Specialists urge parents to make their children feel safe by limiting how much they see on TV and online, and by having open communication.
“After a horrible event like this, kids are going to ask, ‘Am I safe? Are you, the people who take care of me, safe? How is this going to affect my daily life?’ ” said Dr. Eugene Beresin, medical director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic. “When this occurs, such horrifying bloodshed, children see it on television.”
Beresin, who has four children, said parents should try to protect their children from being exposed excessively to media reports.
“Older adolescents can watch and discuss. But turn the television off for the younger children,” Beresin said. “This is going to be shown over and over again, just like it was with 9/11. It’s important to think of the immediate response and the delayed response.”
He cautioned parents to first make sure they are emotionally stable before attempting to tend to the emotional needs of their children.
“Parents always want to take care of kids, but the first thing you need to do is take care of yourself,” Beresin said. “Kids are looking at parents and if they see parents in an unstable state, it makes them even more scared.”
He stressed the importance of counseling and community support. Families should seek the help of teachers, religious leaders, and each other, he said.
“There needs to be a place for families to congregate,” he said. “Don’t isolate yourselves.”
Beresin added that it is not just the youngest in the family who need support.
“Don’t exclude older adolescents,” he said. “They’re worried as well.”
Many children will worry that the violence will continue and spread to their neighborhoods, schools, and homes, Beresin said. Parents should reassure children of their safety.
“This is a most unusual and horrible situation,” he said. “Even for the kids who live in dangerous neighborhoods, schools are generally the safest place for kids to be, not the streets.”
Parents should be prepared that their children might regress.
“Kids will either get agitated or get attached—let them,” he said.
Children could suffer from flashbacks or have trouble sleeping. Beresin encouraged parents to allow their children to grieve.
“They may not want to sleep alone,” he said. “Younger children should be able to sleep with you. Stay close, because this is the time when you need to feel connected.”
Kevin “Kip” Thomas, a Boston University School of Medicine researcher who has studied anxiety and trauma, said that because of the sadness, anger, and confusion felt by many children in the wake of the tragedy, parents should be available if their youngsters need to grieve.
“With any type of trauma situation, you don’t want to make the child relive the events,” said Thomas, who wrote a book in 2008 titled “Parenting an Abused Child”.
Parents should not assume their children are OK, he said.
“Create an opportunity to have them talk about it,” said Thomas, director of BU’s master of science in Healthcare Emergency Management Program. “The parents need to make sure that they have identified and have available for their child appropriate therapy and counseling.”