As events were being reported today from Connecticut, and people began posting on social media, it became apparent that the tragic realities of this story will not be limited to those who want to watch the news.
The news of this unfathomable event will be broadcast extensively on television and online for days and weeks to come, and will be seen and heard by children, whether they want to (or should) hear it or not.So what do we say to the kids?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “few events hit home for children and families like a school shooting. When children see such an event on television or on web-based news flashes, it is natural for them to worry about their own school and their own safety.”
Jolinda Thomas is a Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Director for Cornerstone Family Counseling in Oakhurst. In light of events in Connecticut, Thomas offers some advice to parents wondering what to say and do in the aftermath of the horrific events reported on the news.
“It depends on what age they are. I think that if the children haven’t seen the news and are very young, I’m not sure I would talk to them about it unless they bring it up,” Thomas says. “You are going to have kids probably 3rd, 4th, 5th grade that are going to go ‘hey Mom, did you hear…?’ and the key thing is to ask questions and let them talk about their fears, let them ’empty their tank.'”
Thomas says that talking to kids about emergency plans will also help to lessen fear and possibly impart a greater sense of peace. The local counselor, who works with families and children, including students in the Bass Lake district and beyond, also feels it’s essential to empathize, not minimize.
“It’s very important to let them talk with you about it and ask them open-ended questions,” says Thomas, who cautions against brushing off children’s concerns in an effort to avoid a painful discussion.
“What you don’t want to do is to minimize,” Thomas says, “for example telling a child, ‘that was all the way over there [in Connecticut], or that doesn’t happen very often, you’re okay.’ And they aren’t okay at that moment, if they’re talking to you about it. They have fear over a situation which the whole U.S. is in an uproar about.
“We all have a little bit of fear, and may be asking ‘how can this be happening?'”
The APA offers these guidelines for checking in with children following a school shooting –
Talk and Listen
Psychologists who specialize in trauma and recovery say parents can use the news of a school shooting as an opportunity to talk to and listen to their children, and they stress the importance of honesty.
“Parents should acknowledge to children that bad things do happen, but also reassure them with the information that many people are working to keep them safe, including their parents, teachers and local police,” say experts.
Depending on the age and nature of your kids, they may communicate in different ways. Younger children may work through fears through play or drawings, while elementary age children will combine play and talk to express their thoughts. Adolescents and teens may have the skills to communicate what they’re feeling verbally.
“Adults should be attentive to a child’s concerns, but also try to help the children put their fears into proportion of the real risk,” say APA psychologists. Again, it’s important to reassure children that the adults in their lives are doing everything they can to make their environment – school, home and neighborhood – safe for them.”
Some children may need more reassurance than others.
Limit Exposure to News Coverage
Monitor your child’s exposure to news reports of traumatic events, says the APA, including school shootings.
“Research has shown that some young children believe that the events are reoccurring each time they see a television replay of the news footage,” they report.
Watch for Warning Signs
Children are known to be resilient and many kids may bounce back and return to their normal activities and behavior quickly after news of a tragedy has reached them, but psychologists agree that parents should be alert to signs of anxiety that may indicate a child or teen could need more help.
Such indicators could be a change in the child’s school performance, changes in relationships with peers and teachers, excessive worry, school refusal, sleeplessness, nightmares, headaches or stomachaches, or loss of interest in activities that the child used to enjoy.
The APA also notes that each child responds differently to the news of trauma.
“Some will have no ill effects; others may suffer an immediate and acute effect. Still others may not show signs of stress until sometime after the event.”
For more information, contact Cornerstone Counseling or the American Psychological Association
Cornerstone Counseling is located at 49370 Road 426, phone (559) 641-6321. Cornerstone does not have a website yet.