By Karen Poff
Everyone is shocked by the tragedy that occurred Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
As adults, we often avoid talking to children about events like this because we don't know what to say about such a horrible incident. But we can't completely shield children from the realities of life. If we avoid a subject, our children will hesitate to talk or ask questions and may even worry more because of our silence. When something serious has happened, children intuitively know something is wrong. Encouraging them to talk about their feelings is important.
Most children, even young children, have heard something about the shootings. Very young children may have misunderstood what they have heard. Older children may become fearful because of what they know about the situation.
Adults can't correct misunderstandings or help children cope with fears unless we know what the children are thinking. We need to listen carefully to find out what information they are getting from friends, so that we can explain the facts.
Adults should avoid exposing children to radio or television coverage of the events. But realize that quickly running to turn the radio or television off when children enter the room may send the message that parents are unwilling to talk or that this is a forbidden subject. Parents need to use their best judgement based on the age and maturity of the child as to how much information should be shared.
Children and youth of all ages need to know that it is okay to talk with parents, teachers or other adults about this issue. Children may not be ready to talk right away, but adults can communicate that they are available to listen when the children are ready.
Children also need to know that it is okay to feel sad, afraid, angry, or upset. Sometimes adults are uncomfortable with these unpleasant feelings. It is easy for us to try to brush these feelings away because we want to help children feel happy and safe again. However, children will cope much better if adults listen carefully to what they are saying and acknowledge their feelings and concerns.
Other ways children can work through the trauma are expressing their feelings by drawing, reading and telling stories, or through dramatic play. Older children and youth might want to write their feelings in a journal.
Children also need to be reassured that violence like this is rare. However, we can't honestly say that it will never happen in our community because there are no guarantees.
What adults can do is explain the actions the schools and the community are taking to protect children and prevent this kind of violence. Knowing that the adults around them are taking action can help children feel safer. Hearing adults say, "I will love you no matter what happens and my love will be with you always" also can be reassuring to children.
Another thing we can do to help children is to help them take some kind of action. Children can send a card or letter to the school or families in Connecticut. Or perhaps they can help make a small financial contribution to help the families of the victims. Older children might want to write a letter to the editor, hold their own memorial service, or demonstrate their concern in some other meaningful way. Whatever they decide to do, taking action helps relieve stress and reduce children's feelings of vulnerability.
Adults also need to look for signs that children may need professional help. A child who is too afraid to go to school, too sad to engage in normal activities, or who is completely denying his or her feelings needs the support of caring professionals. Talking with a school guidance counselor, pastor, mental health counselor or other appropriate professional can give parents the support they need to cope with a child who reacts more strongly to the situation.
Thank you to Judith Myers-Walls, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist at Purdue University for providing background information for this article.