The frightening footage of school shootings in Connecticut is difficult to watch for even the most hardened adult. So how do you talk to your child about catastrophes such as this?
Joy Crabtree, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist for Cook Children’s Behavioral Health in Southlake, said parents must set the example for their children to follow. Dr. Crabtree encourages a discussion of the events, but only if their young children have learned about the incident elsewhere. If they haven’t heard about it, don’t share information with them. If they already know about it, answer their questions and most importantly, reassure them.
Crabtree said that in the case of the school shooting in Connecticut, parents need to think through whether their child can handle any news about it at all. Depending on their age and maturity level, it might be best to shield children from the news entirely.
“Since we are talking about a violence issue, and graphic violence that was targeted toward children, I don’t know that kids, certainly elementary age children, need to see any news or footage about it at all,” Crabtree said. “Young children were involved and that makes it even more difficult for them to process. Many children may be very frightened by this news and be scared something similar could happen at their own school. If they have heard about it, take as much time as needed to sit down with them and have a discussion/answer session, providing reassurance and support.”
For older children, such as middle school and high school, Crabtree encourages parents to again determine if their child is mature enough to handle the information. If parents feel they can handle it, use the DVR or TiVo as your friend during the news. Watch it with your child and pause the TV to answer questions. Gauge your child’s emotions and turn the TV off if your child becomes too emotional or the news is too intense.
“Parents have to stay calm and cannot be glued to the TV,” Crabtree said. “Again, if you have an elementary-aged child, and they haven’t learned the news, there’s certainly no reason to sit down with them and show them the story. There’s no need to cause fear in your children. By the time children are 7 or 8 years old, they can distinguish fact from fiction and will understand the consequences of what they are watching. Answer their questions, but only their questions. There’s no need to add more information that may scare them even more.”
Children may not understand the distance of the events on TV, make sure to calm their fears and let them know they are safe. If they continue to be fearful of their own safety, it may be helpful to get out a map and show them how far away they are from the incident that happened today.
“This news could be very scary to many children,” said Crabtree. “Parents need to realize this could really raise anxiety levels. This was in a small town. This was an elementary school. They may feel that if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere. I can’t stress enough the importance of just being there for your child right now to support them. Again, for younger children, only discuss it if they are already aware of the situation.”
Teens may have more questions and concerns because they can find information on the Web and discuss it with their friends at school. They may wonder why something like this happens. Share with your child your own fears and anxieties about the events. Let them know it’s okay to feel scared or frustrated, but it cannot overtake them. Also, share with them ways that they may help by donating monetarily or giving blood in some instances. Sometimes when tragedy happens it helps them to work through their anxiety by becoming active and helping others.
Listen to your teen, or older child, regarding their fears and concerns. How an adult manages their own feelings can also provide a positive example for them.
Crabtree advises parents to watch to see if their children restrict activity, for instance if they don’t want to go to school or to the playground because it is too far away from home, or simply because they are afraid. Also notice if your child becomes withdrawn or more clingy than usual, and constantly wants to sleep in your bed.
“It is common for children to have a general fear, but if you see an overwhelming fear, it’s important to talk to their pediatrician,” Crabtree said. “If it continues to be a concern, then it may be time to get professional help.”