Tips and Resources for Talking to Children/Students About Awful Things

Contributed by Jody McVittie MD

What makes events like the shootings in Newtown so terrifying is that is impossible to make sense of them. It is even worse when it seems like it should be preventable. It is hard for all of us. It is harder for children and adults who have been exposed to trauma.

There is oodles of information online and this is meant only to be a short summary with links to excellent resources.

At home you can decide how much or little exposure your children have to the news. Very young children do not need to know about these events.

Schools don’t have the same option. School age children will be exposed in some fashion. As their peers who have been exposed to information struggle to make meaning, they will talk. Children will overhear adults talking. They are smart and know that something big has happened. Sheltering them from everything fearful may seem kind, but it can be very confusing to a child who as already “picked up” that something big has happened. It is better to address and answer questions in a developmentally appropriate way.

Here are some ideas and resources:
1. Take care of yourself first. Calm yourself. Children are very sensitive to our non-verbal cues. If you are struggling with your own sense that “nothing is safe anymore” you can follow KJ Dell’Antonia’s recommendation of following each worried thought with a brave thought. Brave thoughts include: This is very very rare. The community is pulling together to support the families that are grieving. There are lots of helpers in our community.

2. Think about what your child or student “needs” to know. If you have young children in your family they do not need to know or talk about this kind of event. Guidelines for talking to very young children about traumatic events can be found here.
Some of your students will know more than others. Keep your conversation age appropriate. You may want to tell your students that all the details are not going to help us understand what happened any better. The important piece is that we are sad, it is hard to understand and that the adults in this building work hard to keep everyone safe.

3. As children/students work to make meaning of the events they may ask the same question over and over again. You do not need to search for “new” answers. Acknowledge that it is impossible to really understand or to feel good about this kind of tragedy. Go back to what you know about your school/family and how you work to keep people safe. Students need to know that you keep a close eye on people in the building. You practice lock down and safety measures. These events are really, really rare.

4. Sometimes when we cannot make meaning, we feel some relief when we can take a helpful action. Here are some ideas:
• Write notes to the people they love to tell them how important they are.
• Write notes to the school in Connecticut and let them know that you are thinking of them.
• Practice problem solving with their friends, their siblings, their adult care-givers. (People who are good at solving problems don’t need to hurt others)

5. As a school/family you may choose to limit TV or internet use. Like adults, older children want to learn more so that they can understand. More knowledge will not help with understanding here.

6. Children/Students who have been exposed to trauma in the past are likely to have a harder time than other students. They may seem distant, clingy, aggressive, anxious or disconnected.

7. Maintaining your regular routines is helpful and important, particularly for students previously exposed to trauma.

8. Additional online resources for talking with children about overwhelming events.

American Academy of Pediatrics on School Shootings. (A whole page of links for talking to your students/children)

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event

University of Minnesota Extension: Talking to Children about Violence Against Kids

National Association of School Psychologists Talking to Children About Violence: Information for Parents and Educators

American Psychological Society: Helping Your Children Manage Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting.

Talking to Children about Death (from Hospice)

Mr. Rogers has a full page of tips as well. He reminds us to help shift again to “brave” thoughts.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Wisdom from two colleagues I respect deeply:
Alyson Schafer How to talk to your children about the school shootings

Bonnie Harris Looking for the helpers.

It is really important to be kind to yourself at these times. Practice tenderness. We are more likely to (unintentionally) hurt others when we are hurting ourselves.

My favorite quote from Parker Palmer seems relevant at this time:
“Violence is what happens when we cannot manage our own suffering.”