Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ask Dr. Momsie: Talking to Children About School Violence

After the horrifying school shooting last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I have received several requests to share my advice on how to talk to children about the shooting.  Undoubtedly, many children have seen the news coverage, talked to their peers about it, and have many questions and difficult feelings brewing.  At times like these, parents definitely need to make an intentional effort to talk to their children about what they are seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling.  But, it's such a difficult subject, many parents (and teachers) just don't feel prepared or adequate to have the discussion.  Here are some Dr. Momsie tips:
  • Limit your child's exposure to media.  It is no accident that this is my top recommendation.  The news is flooded with discussion and pictures of the events of last Friday.  Many adults turn to this media coverage to answer their questions and help them process the horrifying event.  However, for children, this type of information is experienced much differently by their little developing brain.  It can be very scary, as they can not cognitively separate themselves (time, place, perspective) from these images.  If you feel inclined to watch the media coverage, please wait until your children are in bed or at school.
  • Ask your child what s/he has seen, heard and understood about the events of last Friday.  If your child has been watching the news or talking to peers about the event, they may have inaccurate, unrealistic, or just plain scary ideas about what happened and what that means for them.  Left to their own cognitive devices, your young children may imagine a fantastical and magical story that doesn't really fit with the facts.  Parents and teachers can gently correct inaccurate perceptions and honestly share the facts as we know them.
  • Allow your child to discuss their feelings, fears, and questions.  Although it may be difficult, allow your children to talk about their concerns.  Young children may ask similar questions over and over.  This should be allowed, but not forced.  Do not push a child to talk who is not quite ready.  Let them know that Mommy is ready to talk and answer questions whenever they are ready.  Do not negate their feelings by saying things like, "You have no reason to be scared," "Don't cry," or "Why would you laugh about that?" (Some children respond with jokes and laughter as an alternate way of coping.)  Instead, accept and reflect their feelings.
  • Be honest.   In your best efforts to shield your child from disturbing facts about the school shooting, you may actually confuse them. Or, if they hear conflicting stories, they may pick up on mommy and daddy's reluctance and even dishonesty.  Remember, events like this are a chance to build trusting relationships with your kids so that they feel comfortable to talk about their feelings throughout life.  Use this as an opportunity to build trust by being honest.
  • Be sensitive to age and personality.  Use developmentally appropriate language to answer questions about the events.  Young children probably do not need to know, nor will they even comprehend, details about the shooter's diagnosis, types of weapons, etc.  Stick to the basic facts.  Also, some children are more emotionally sensitive than others to these type of events.  If you have a child who is sensitive and emotional, be extra supportive and reassuring.  These children may need more frequent and ongoing conversations. Watch these children for sleep disturbance such as nightmares, eating disturbances, or withdrawal.  These might be warning signs that your child might benefit from talking with a counselor.
  • Reassure your child of their safety.  Parents and teachers can share with their children the precautions they have taken to protect them from similar events.  Talk about your school's lockdown procedure and safety policies.  Rather than sharing too much information about how children can protect themselves, which may heighten anxiety, discuss the plans adults have in place to keep them safe.  Calm them by telling them you trust their school to keep them safe (if you don't trust their school, find a different school!).  You may want to share some basic ideas about personal safety, but for young children, it is most important that they trust the adults around them to keep them safe.
  • Give children an outlet.  Some children express themselves better through writing, drawing, music, etc. rather than through spoken words.  Allow children to write and draw about their feelings without judging or criticizing.  For example, some children will naturally draw violent images following this type of event.  This does not necessarily mean they are the next school shooter.  It is usually more likely that they are just processing their feelings through art.
  • Offer hope.  Where do you find your hope?  If you are a Christian family, you can share the hope of heaven and Jesus with your children.  Children will be comforted to know that the children who died are now in the presence of Jesus.  They also will be comforted to know that Jesus loves children and is always with them.  They should know they can always call on Jesus for help and pray when they are sad.  Let them know that Jesus cares that they are sad, and that he grieves with us.  Pray with your children for the families and school staff. 
Jesus said,
"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." Matthew 19:14
If you have more questions about talking to your children during this difficult time, will you please email me through the Contact tab above?  I'd love to offer your family more support.

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