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Talking to Children About the Newtown Shooting

There is a fairly wide range of opinions as to whether parents and caregivers should or shout not discuss the Newtown Connecticut shooting and other such events with their children.  A fair amount of information became available shortly after 9/11, helping people to hear all sides of the arguments.

Generally speaking, most experts feel that parents will need at some point, to discuss the subject with their children unless their children live in an environment where they will not hear about the event at all.  This, as we know, is becoming increasingly rarer over time as even the most rural lifestyles generally include some sort of television, radio and of course the internet.

Thus the question is fast becoming not if you discuss with your child, but simply when and how.

when to talk to your children

Not all experts will agree with me on this.  But my general advise to parents is to discuss the subject with your children when a) you personally are able to do it and b) before they find out some other way.

The first criteria, generally means after you have had a few minutes to process the original shock yourself.  In other words, not to run screaming into the other room about what you just saw on TV.  And given today's up to the minute media coverage of just about everything, the likelihood is that if you don't buckle down and tell your child right away, they are likely to soon find out anyway.

So, while there may be some exceptions for some families, I believe that the time to talk about it is right now.

Use the "bite Size" rule to begin

No matter the child and no matter the situation, when you have something big to tell a child, I recommend introducing it in what I call a BITE SIZE.

The idea of the bite size introduction is to tell the entire story, from start to end, in a single bite size.  Here are some examples of a "bite size" for some different ages of children --

3 YEAR OLD - A sad thing happened a few days ago but it is over now.

5 YEAR OLD - A bad man tried to hurt some people on Friday and it made alot of people sad because some did get hurt.  But it wasn't in our town and its all over.

7 YEAR OLD - A very sad thing happened a few days ago at a school.  Some kids and teachers got hurt by a man who was very angry and did the wrong thing.  But it didn't happen to anyone we know, and it is all over.

10 YEAR OLD - You are going to hear (or you have already heard) about a man who shot some people in a school.  We are all very sad for the kids and the parents and we want to help America be a safer place.  You should know that this is very very rare and that we here are all safe.

In the case where either your know that your child knows something about what is going on, or they are old enough such that it is very likely (and this is typically about five or six years old - or older) you will probably want to then ask a question such as:

"Did you hear something about it?"

The keys to a BITE SIZE introduction is to tell a TRUTHFUL and complete version of the story with an emphasis on the fact that it was somewhat distant from your child and/or town and most importantly that it was unusual and is over.

The alternative to sell the story in a BITE SIZE introduction, is to tell it sequentially.  Doing so, may then generate harder and harder questions, a more open ended conclusion on your child's part, or simply "suspense" that is counter productive.

A child's reaction to a bite size introduction

In the very next step, your child is going to react.  In fact, a large percentage of children will actually be completely satisfied at this stage with what you have told them.  Many children will simply say "ok, can I go back to playing now?".  Obviously, younger children, less inquisitive children or children who are engrossed otherwise, are more likely to react this way.  Additionally, some children will initially react this way, before later on responding further.  If  child reacts this way, it is generally fine to let the child go and do something else.  I will discuss circling back with them at the next juncture.

The next section presumes that your child does not just walk away, and goes over the next steps in the conversation.

step two:  the question

The next step will ALWAYS be a question, however who poses that first question can go either way.

OPTION ONE - YOUR CHILD POSES THE FIRST QUESTION

This is a wonderful outcome.  It means that your child is willing to talk about it, naturally responding with their own curiosity which will help them to eventually process.  A child's questions may still ask for some sort of reconfirmation as to their own safety.  Of course, any such question can be honestly answered with "yes - you are safe", "as I told you it is all over and everyone is safe now" or " it happened very far away and they were not people who we knew".

But since you did already cover this fact in your introduction, the questions are more likely to be focused towards what happened. Here are some examples of questions that you might hear --

DID ANYONE GET HURT?

DID THE MAN GET IN TROUBLE?

DID THE POLICE COME?

DID ANYONE CRY?

DID ANYONE DIE?

WAS ANYONE SHOT?

DO I KNOW ANYONE WHO WAS THERE?

HAVE WE EVER BEEN THERE?

WHY DID HE DO IT?

Regardless of the question, the key is that your child is already taking a step in processing the event by asking a question.  It also means that you are about to determine --

1) What is the most important/troubling aspect of the event, to your child

2) How significant is their interest

3) How are you going to help them as they continue to hear more about the event and continue to process.

step three:  Listening

Presuming that your child has posed some questions and or wants to discuss the subject further, the next step involves simply listening.  In situations like this, being an active listener should be trimmed down to words and gestures that show how concerned you are about what your child has to say.  There is no need for questions that probe deeply into your child's psyche at this point, but simply affirming responses such as --

-- "you are right it is very sad"

-- "I am sad too"

-- "You are safe"

-- "Thanks for telling me how you feel"

 

step four:  helping your child feel safe

Experts agree that this is a time for extra hugs, for a smile, for reaffirming words that school is safe, your community is safe,how lucky you are to live in a town where everyone is keeping people safe, etc (not that Newtown is not this, to be sure). 

The risk of being hit by a car is 100 times higher than the risk of an in school gun incident, in the United States.  Statistically, what happened in Newtown remains exceedingly rare.

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