Monday, December 17, 2012

How Do We Talk to Children About the Unspeakable?

Our hearts and our prayers go out to the families of the children, teachers, and staff of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A tragedy like this is impossible to comprehend.

Parents and caring adults can help children process information in a way that is appropriate to their age. Martha Edwards, Ph.D., Director of the Center for the Developing Child and Family, shares some ways to help children cope in these difficult times below.

Lois Braverman
President & CEO

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Martha E. Edwards, Ph.D.
Director, Center for the Developing Child and Family

I was in my office this morning with parents of a 7-year-old. On the way to school, after a brief reference to the Newtown shooting on the radio which his mom turned off immediately, he broke the news to her that “something happened” and told her what he had learned from other children the day before.

This is a poignant reminder that we can’t always control the information our children receive and they can easily get the wrong idea. This boy assumed his mother’s silence about the event meant that she didn’t know about it and it was his job to tell her as gently as he could what had happened.

They went on to have a meaningful and developmentally appropriate conversation about what happened at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday.

How do we talk about the unspeakable? If we can’t make sense of it ourselves, how can we help our children make sense of it?

We don’t know why this happened, and we may never know what was in the mind and heart of the shooter, but we can help our children process their own experience and to feel they are not alone in their reactions. Here are some ways of helping children in these difficult times:
  • Put away newspapers with huge headlines of the shooting and avoid the 24 hours news cycles that focus heavily on the event. Be the main source of information for your child. Newspapers and TV are not geared toward children’s sensibilities and need to be limited as much as possible.
  • Find out what your children know already and give them opportunities to ask whatever questions they have. Answer honestly and simply. Children don’t need too much detail.
  • Children may need several very small conversations rather than one big one. An important aspect of these conversations is that they know that you know what happened and will join the adults in figuring out what to do about it. This will reassure them and contribute to their feelings of safety and security.
  • Share your own feelings with your children, which will give them a model for paying attention to their own feelings. Feelings of sadness and empathy for the children and their families will be most helpful at this point, rather than airing your own outrage, anger, and helplessness.
  • Some children may worry that they could get so mad that they might hurt someone. Acknowledge that anger is a powerful emotion that we all feel at times. Let them know that you understand and are there to talk about these feelings and help them decide what to do.
  • Let them know that the grown-ups around them are thinking hard about what to do about this and working on solutions that will make things better in the future.

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