Monday, December 17, 2012

GUEST COLUMN: Talking to children after the recent Connecticut tragedy

By Randy Callstrom, Executive Director, PACES

In the aftermath of last Friday’s tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., the most important things that we can do for our kids is to tell them that we love them and hug them. Parents and teachers need to listen to children’s questions and respond honestly and appropriately for their age.

It’s also important to keep them from watching excessive reports and recaps about the tragedy, especially any that appear violent or may be confusing or frightening to them.

Top 10 things to remember:
  • Stay calm and be reassuring when talking with kids. They need to know adults care about them and are working to keep them safe.
  • Keep the daily routine as much as possible. Kids are reassured by routine.
  • Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions.
  • Use age-appropriate levels of information and language when explaining or responding to kids’ questions (see below for more specific information).
  • Acknowledge the child’s thoughts, feelings, questions and reactions.
  • Minimize exposure to media reports that may be frightening, confusing or extremely sad (like the funerals that are now starting to happen).
  • Express concern for the victims and their families.
  • Watch for changes in the child’s behavior. If problems persist, seek professional help.
  • Lean on others and your faith for your own personal support during this difficult time.
  • Love and hug your kid today and everyday.
Helping kids understand and cope

There are no “right” or “wrong” ways to talk with children about such a traumatic event. But, here are some suggestions that might be helpful.
  • Give children honest answers and information in language they understand. Adults will likely need to repeat information and explanations several times.
  • Under age 7 – Don’t share information unless they know about the shooting. It’s best if they do not know. If they do know and ask questions, answer only the question they are asking and answer in little kid terms. They do not need details.
  • 8 to 12 years – Let them take the lead. What are their questions? Clarify and answer questions but do not dwell on them.  Provide simple answers and reassure the kids that they are safe.
  • 13 and above – Let them lead. Answer their questions. Ask them what questions this raises for them.
  • Talk with the child calmly about the shooting.
  • Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions. It’s best not to force them to talk about things unless and until they are ready. But let them know you are there to talk with them and hear them out.
  • Ask the child or adolescent what he/she has heard and try to understand what may be bothering the individual. Listen for fears and concerns.
  • If the child asks a question repeatedly, he/she may be looking for reassurance from a trusted adult. Kids personalize things, and they may be wondering if something like the Connecticut shooting could occur in their classrooms. It’s important for adults to reassure kids that several people are working together for their safety – their parents, teachers and staff at the school.
  • If the child repeats information that may be inaccurate, gently correct him/her with accurate information.
  • Acknowledge the child’s thoughts, feelings, questions and reactions. Let children know that their questions and observations are important and appropriate.
  • Minimize children’s exposure to media reports that appear violent or that could be confusing, frightening and/or disturbing to them.
Children learn from adults who matter to them – their parents, teachers, ministers and others. They will be watching and listening to hear how these adults respond and what the talk is at home, school and church. Be sensitive to talking about the incident in earshot of kids. Express concern for the victims and their families.

At the same time, share ideas about how to cope with difficult situations like this tragedy. It’s important to reinforce repeatedly that caring adults are watching out for the safety of children.

Kids may need additional help when…
Watch for changes in behavior, such as disturbance of sleep or eating; nightmares; changes in the child’s ability to do normal things; changes in his/her enjoyment of normal things; the child’s becoming clingy; or other significant changes in behavior. If parents or teachers notice a change in a child’s behavior, they should ask open-ended questions such as, “Is everything okay? Is there something you want to share with me?” Adults should not assume anything about how kids are feeling.

Special situations to watch for
If the child continues to experience fears and concerns, and he/she is having trouble with routine activities – sleep is disturbed; he/she can’t concentrate; or the child is worrying excessively – parents should contact a school counselor or PACES where mental health professionals have special training in how to cope with traumatic experiences. PACES is Wyandotte County’s mental health agency providing services for kids and their families.

PACES can be reached at
  • PACES services:                                913-563-6500
  • 24-hour Emergency Crisis Line:           913-788-4200