10 Dos & Don'ts for Explaining Sandy Hook to Kids

telling kids about NewtownIn 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



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chell... chellyelizabeth

I have a 6 year old and when we got home from school we turned the news off and told him about it pretty much like your article said, we simplified it for his age. We told him that he would probably hear things on the news about it on tvs that adults were watching or hear adults talking about the bad things that happened and he needs to ask us questions if he has any and not to get his information from the tv. His dad didn't want to tell him, because he wanted to shield him from it, but I knew he'd hear about it because it was such a big story and a big deal and he needed to hear it from us, especially since it was kids at an elementary school that were his age and it's not a far leap from "kids his age got killed" to "can that happen to me" in the mind of a child (or anyone for that matter!)

butte... butterflyfreak

My daughter is 5 and was home sick from school on Friday. I was at work in an elementary school lunch room when I heard the news. I went back and forth most of the morning trying to decide if I should say anything to her when I got home. I just couldn't find the right way to bring it up but then she saw a meme (I was looking through news articles and facebook trying to get more information) of an angel crying, one of the many memes put out honoring the victims. She asked me why the angel was crying which opened the door, so to speak. I told her that the angel was crying because there was a very bad man who had killed a bunch of kids today and the angel is crying for them. She hasn't really asked a lot of questions, but when we offered up a prayer for the families, she started talking about wanting to save people when she grows up. We started talking about careers that help people, policeman, firefighter, doctors, nurses. She says she wants to be a police officer so she can help save people. So sweet.

Deweymom Deweymom

I did have the news (probably my bad) and I just explained to my 4yo that someone hurt a bunch of young children and I was very sad for them...yet I was so greatfull to have her and her baby sister safe with me.

I also stressed, in a not so scary way, that she should always listen to her teacher at school during emergencies (I used a fire drill as an example).

Did I do right? Who knows...guess I'm still trying to figure this parenting thing out. But I have made time for way more cuddles with both my kids the past few days....and it absolutely breaks my heart that some parents had that ripped away from them.

nonmember avatar Katrina

Do not keep your children home because they (or you) are fearful. Keep the routine, show faith that everything will be alright. Children are watching the adults in their life to gauge how they need to react. Keeping children home shows that you, the parent, are scared. Taking a child out of school is not a good way to give a child security or safety, sending them to school with reassurance that everything is ok is how kids will move forward and see that there is nothing to be scared of at school or anywhere else.

c_gal... c_galvan87

I told, my daughters that a mean man shot and killed some kids and grown ups at.school. Then we went over what they should do if this happened at their school

nonmember avatar Stephanie

My son is 5 and in kindergarten I will not tell my son anything about what happened and noone plans on telling him.

nonmember avatar Melanie

I almost waited too long. My son had heard that alot of kids and teachers died in a school. Being in kindergarden he hadn't actualized that there are more than his own school, so he thought that that was where it happened. He was anxious about the bad man coming to his class next. It was only Monday by then, and I'm really relieved that I had sucked it up and opened the discussion at least that soon.

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