In the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut gun massacre that left 20 first-graders and six adults dead in an elementary school, I, like most parents, found myself facing an awful dilemma: Should I tell my children about this?
At just 4 and 6, it's entirely possible my kids would never have to know about this. Personally, I didn't want to know about it. So why would I possibly want to burden them? But then there is the fear that they might hear it from someone else, someone who doesn't love them or have their best interest at heart. Then what?
As parents, we face questions like this every day, but this is particularly gut-wrenching since every single one of us is also dealing with this pain in our own unique way. Child psychiatrist Dr. Pamela Cantor is the founder and president of Turnaround for Children, an organization that helps lower performing schools. She spoke exclusively to The Stir and offered 10 dos and don'ts when discussing these events with our children. See below:
- DO be the first person your child hears it from if they are school age. That means yes, parents, you should tell your child. Even your kindergartner (I know). “Who do you want your child to hear this from?" Cantor says. "You are the most trusted person in your child’s life.” The fact is, kids will come in with information from sources that might not have their best interest at heart.
- DO keep it simple. “Don’t talk about gory details," Cantor advises. Tell them in an age-appropriate manner. You might tell a 5-year-old something like: "A person with enormous problems hurt some children at a school. This is very, very unusual. This is not something that happens all the time." The key is to emphasize how rare it is. Not to promise it won't ever happen again.
- DO seek help. As parents we aren't immune to the pain of this. We are all frightened and sad and grieving. But we can't let our kids know that. We can't communicate too many of our own feelings. “They will register fear because you are registering fear," Cantor says. “In a time like this where parents are going to have real upsets and fears of their own, they need to seek help. Be a stable voice for your kid.”
- DO what’s reasonable. A day or two home for a child who is excessively fearful won’t hurt. But it's important to stick with routines as much as possible. “Routines really do help children," Cantor says. "It conveys to them that life can be normal again.
- DO remind them you are safe. For many children, the worry will not be for themselves. It will be for their caregiver. Don't forget to tell them mommy and daddy (or whoever cares for them) are safe, too.
- DON'T keep the news on or even NPR in the car, especially for kids under 10. Even older kids should have limited exposure. It's "traumatizing and retraumatizing to children." Cantor says. Also don't talk about it too much in front of them. Limit adult conversation and talk out of earshot of your kids.
- DON'T be afraid to ask for help. It's typical for kids to have nightmares, complain of stomachaches, and say they are scared, but too much of that could be bad. Seek help for them if it seems like too much. An important point: :If kids have had a recent loss or been exposed to trauma in their lives, they are much more likely to have trouble."
- DON'T assume one conversation will suffice. “This event is not going away any time soon," Cantor says. "They are going to hear about this everywhere for years to come." Be the first one they hear it from.
- DON'T tell all your kids the same thing. For instance, a 3-year-old might be told: "A really sad event happened at a school. You might be hearing something about this. I wanted you to know I know about this.” An older child will be told more. Something like: "A man with a great many problems shot kids and adults at a school. You are going to hear a lot about this. This is a person who has a lot of problems. Because you are going to hear about it, I wanted you to hear it from me. Your school is a safe school." Only the parents may judge which is which.
- DON'T forget yourself. "We have gone through many terrible things as a country," Cantor says. "Normalcy does get restored. It doesn't happen overnight."
What did you tell your kids?
Image via Pink Sherbet Photography's photostream/Flickr