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The 180 Blog Dec 17, 2012

Guidance for Parents in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

We at Turnaround for Children would like to share some thoughts and resources to help as our schools, staff, and communities cope with reactions to the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.

There are many factors which determine how a child will respond to a traumatic event.  The significance of a violent event to a child often reaches beyond the event itself and can re-awaken memories of past traumas. In response to the recent shooting, children may be reminded of violent or other frightening incidents or a traumatic loss of safety and security. Children who have known prior traumatic events are at much higher risk for symptoms and will need more support to reassure them that they are safe and to restore them to healthy functioning. Often they will need additional help from a professional. This is why knowing what to do as a parent or teacher to support a child is so important.

What follows are some ideas of what to expect and suggestions for how all of us can support the children in our lives as they come to terms with what this catastrophic event means to them.

Talking to Children about the Shooting

The recent shooting has evoked many emotions—sadness, grief, helplessness, anxiety, and anger. Schools are supposed to be one of the safe places, where students go to learn and be with friends. Children who are struggling with their thoughts and feelings about the stories and images of the shooting may turn to trusted adults for help and guidance. Reinforcing safety after this tragedy is important with very young children. They need to hear that their parents/caregivers will do everything they can to keep them safe. Schools will be working to be sure that their school is a safe place for learning and having fun with friends and classmates.

  • Start the conversation. Talk about the shooting with your child. Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in your child’s mind. Silence suggests that what has occurred is too horrible even to speak about or that you do not know what has happened. With social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, text messages, newsbreaks on favorite radio and TV stations, and others), it is highly unlikely that children and teenagers have not heard about this. Chances are your child has heard about it, too.
  • What does your child already know? Start by asking what your child/teen already has heard about the events from the media and from friends. Listen carefully; try to figure out what he or she knows or believes. As your child explains, listen for misinformation, misconceptions, and underlying fears or concerns. Understand that this information will change as more facts about the shooting are known.
  • Gently correct inaccurate information. If your child/teen has inaccurate information or misconceptions, take time to provide the correct information in simple, clear, age-appropriate language.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions, and answer those questions directly. Your child/teen may have some difficult questions about the incident. For example, she may ask if it is possible that it could happen at their school; she is probably really asking whether it is “likely.” The concern about re-occurrence will be an issue for caregivers and children/teens alike. While it is important to discuss the likelihood of this risk, she is also asking if she is safe. This may be a time to review plans your family has for keeping safe in the event of any crisis situation. Do give any information you have on the help and support the victims and their families are receiving. Let her know that the person responsible is under arrest and cannot hurt anyone else. Like adults, children/teens are better able to cope with a difficult situation when they have the facts about it. Having question-and-answer talks gives your child ongoing support as he or she begins to cope with the range of emotions stirred up by this tragedy.
  • Limit media exposure. Limit your child’s exposure to media images and sounds of the shooting, and do not allow your very young children to see or hear any TV/radio shooting-related messages. Even if they appear to be engrossed in play, children often are aware of what you are watching on TV or listening to on the radio. What may not be upsetting to an adult may be very upsetting and confusing for a child. Limit your own exposure as well. Adults may become more distressed with nonstop exposure to media coverage of this shooting. If your child has watched coverage, take a minute to turn off the television and ask the child about what they think about what was seen. This also gives you an opportunity to discuss the event and gently correct misperceptions.
  • Common reactions. Children/Teens may have reactions to this tragedy. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, they may have more problems paying attention and concentrating. They may become more irritable or defiant. Children and even teens may have trouble separating from caregivers, wanting to stay at home or close by them. It’s common for young people to feel anxious about what has happened, what may happen in the future, and how it will impact their lives. Their sleep and appetite routines may change. In general, you should see these reactions lessen within a few weeks.
  • Be a positive role model. Consider sharing your feelings about the shooting with your child/teen, but at a level they can understand. You may express sadness and empathy for the victims and their families. You may share some worry, but it is important to also share ideas for coping with difficult situations like this tragedy. When you speak of the quick response by law enforcement and medical personnel to help the victims, you help your child/teen see that there can be good, even in the midst of such a horrific event.
  • Be patient. In times of stress, children/teens may have trouble with their behavior, concentration, and attention. While they may not openly ask for your guidance or support, they will want it. Both children and teens will need a little extra patience, care, and love. (Be patient with yourself, too!).
  • Extra help should reactions continue or at any point interfere with your children’s/teens’ abilities to function or if you are worried, contact local mental health professionals who have expertise in trauma. Contact your family physician, pediatrician, or state mental health associations for referrals to such experts.

NOTE: Children/teens who were present at the school, knew those directly affected, or have experienced similar incidents will need more support in the days and weeks ahead.

How to Talk to Children about the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    1. How do I know how my child will respond to the knowledge of Friday’s events?
      Every child’s response will be different. But the factors that determine the impact on a child are:

      • The intrinsic resilience of the child
      • The severity of the event
      • Whether the child gets support right away

      Recovery from violent trauma requires an ability to restore a child’s sense of safety. Most often this is derived from what they experience from the adults on whom they depend. Children can be reassured that they will be o.k. again as long as the adults will be o.k. and will help and support them.

    1. My children don’t know about the school shooting. Do I need to tell them?Parents should speak to their children first, if possible, so that they control the first details that children hear, otherwise the risk is too great that they will get misinformation at school or somewhere else and be unnecessarily frightened.


    1. What should I tell them? Is it different for children of different ages?
      All children should have enough detail to know the truth about what happened. You might try language along these lines: “A very sad event happened last Friday in Connecticut that you might be hearing about and I wanted you to hear it from me first. A man with many problems came into a school and shot students and teachers there…” Take a pause, let them ask questions, and have the rest of what you say be guided by the questions they ask. This will help you to know what they are most worried about.

        • All children need to know that these events are highly unusual and happen very rarely.
        • All children need to be assured that they can count on you to tell them the truth so they should come to you with questions as they have them.
        • More details will be coming out so you and they will continue to talk
        • Be better listeners than talkers, be patient, don’t probe if children are quiet at first
        • Don’t tell them what to feel
        • Stay close and connected to them. Be reassuring

      For older children who have likely heard about Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech:

        • Older children need the same reassurance but will have more sophisticated questions about why this happened. Discussing the issue in terms of likely causes, asking them their ideas about what they think should be done about it, how they might want to help the victims, or preventing these things from happening in the future will help.


    2. What if my children get scared and want to stay home from school?
      Children need a great deal of reassurance that they will be safe. They may ask the same questions over and over. Be patient and let them know that even though this did happen, these events are very, very unusual and that schools take many precautions to make sure children will be safe.If children want to stay home, it is often because they don’t want anything to happen to you. If they are very frightened, staying home for a day or two isn’t a problem but routines are very reassuring to children so a child returning to school and the school preparing for the feelings children will have are the best paths toward recovery from an event like this.
    1. What are some of the typical reactions children have to a traumatic event such as this one?
      • trouble sleeping, nightmares
      • feeling helpless
      • feeling this is somehow their fault, not knowing how to help
      • physical symptoms
      • inability to concentrate
      • regression or reverting to baby-like behavior
      • questions will be asked over and over again, likely over a long period
      • anger, irritability
      • children who have been exposed to prior trauma are at higher risk for symptoms that don’t go away
    1. What are some of the things I can do to limit the amount of worry and fear my children experience?
      • Do not let younger children watch television news. Limit exposure to TV for older children as well.
      • Avoid exposing children to adult conversations about this event.
      • Try to limit exposure to excessive worries that you might have although sharing some of your feelings about concern for the victims is o.k. Exposure to excessive worry in you will frighten your children unnecessarily.
      • Stay close, be patient, but try to avoid being over-protective.
    1. How long will I have to worry about this event and its impact?
      Children may be asking questions about this for a long time, or may hear things that trigger new questions. Other children may feel a return to safety that is much quicker. What is most important is to try to assess what your own child needs and tailor your response to that. Over talking/over protecting is just as problematic as pretending the shooting didn’t happen. Calibrate your response to your child’s age and level of stress and need.
  1. When should I go for help if needed? What are the early warning signs?
    Here are three things to be guided by when assessing whether a child needs professional help:

    • Intensity of a child’s response: many children will have a reaction that will be temporary including increased anxiety, nightmares, worry, sadness or irritability. I would be concerned if reaction is intense (very intense fears, intense irritability, especially agitated)
    • Frequency: frequent episodes during the day or over several days (trouble sleeping over several days; multiple episodes of intense anxiety)
    • Persistence: reaction persists over a week

Additional Resources: