By Kristy Wilson
As a social service professional I have worked with other people’s children in the community for years. In working with youth I have been asked incredibly difficult questions that I didn’t always have the best response for. In hindsight, I would think to myself “I should have said…” Now that I have a young child of my own I dread the thought of having to answer “the hard questions”, similar to those I have been asked in the past, because it makes real the fact that tragic events do occur in our world.
Almost one year ago today tragedy struck the community of Newtown, Conn., as 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults. Amongst the news coverage of the heroic efforts as the events unfolded were debates about mental health issues and gun control laws. The feelings of sadness, fear, and anger felt by American’s across the country seem unanimous. In the days that followed the Sandy Hook tragedy on December 14, 2012, parents across the country and around the world hugged their children a bit tighter and many thought twice when putting them on the bus for school the next day.
Often times as adults we have learned the skills necessary to process such events, but children’s ability’s to understand and communicate their feelings varies. While some parents may take the approach of “wait and see” (i.e. I will wait and see if my child brings up the topic, then deal with it), as a mental health professional I urge you to be prepared. Some may believe that if a child doesn’t have access to the tv/radio/internet, then they won’t hear about these situations, but this is typically not the case. The reality is that we as parents, and other important people in children’s lives, have an opportunity to play an active role in helping our children through trauma, but often shy away from doing so because of being timid that we may do more harm than good.
Below is a list of ways to prepare for discussions about Sandy Hook and other traumatic/impacting events that your child may experience. This list is not comprehensive and should be tailored to the age and developmental needs of your child.
1. Be self aware. First and foremost, be aware of your thoughts and feelings about the traumatic situation. If every time you speak or think about the traumatic event you cry it may be a good idea to process your feelings with someone before speaking with your child about it.
2. Ask your child what he knows about the situation. This will give you a framework of what facts you may need to provide and what information is developmentally appropriate.
3. Ask your child about her feelings. Start by asking how she felt the day when she heard about the event. Ask her how she feels about the event today. If there are lingering feelings (i.e. fear, anxiety, sadness, etc.) ask what she does when she experiences those feelings. Ask how you can help with her feelings.
4. Facts only. Only provide age appropriate facts to your child. If you are unsure of something research it and bring the information back to your child. Do not assume that information provided by one news source is 100% accurate.
5. Create a safe place. People often fear being judged if they show emotion. However, lingering traumatic experiences often occur because emotions are not processed and dealt with. Let your child know that it is okay to cry, yell, etc. as he/she is discussing feelings about the event.
6. Be aware of school practices. Be aware of how your child’s school is dealing with the aftermath of the traumatic event, if at all. In addition, be aware of what your child’s school policy is on handling any “disastertype” situations (i.e. tornadoes, fire, earthquakes, active violence, etc.). Knowing what their policies are regarding safety information systems, practice drills, anniversary celebrations, and any type of awareness events will aid in discussions at home and help you feel prepared to field questions or concerns that your child might have.
7. Create open lines of communication. After completing steps one through five listed above the assumption might be “well, I have done a great job discussing this. Now Johnny knows that he can talk with me about it.” Do not assume. Sometimes less is more. Simply saying something like “Johnny, thanks for talking with me about Sandy Hook. I appreciate you being so open with me. You know you can come to me with any situation that is bothering you, right?” Sounds cheesy, yes! However, the message is clearly communicated.
8. Seek resources. If a traumatic event is consistently impacting your child get them professional help. There can be stigma when seeking counseling/therapy. While it is true that my training may make me biased to counseling/therapy I often say, and truly believe, that “everyone needs counseling at one point in time in their life or another. It is simply a question of whether they choose to acknowledge the need and seek the services.”
It is not easy to have conversations with children about things like the Sandy Hook school shooting. I believe that this is partially because then we have to acknowledge that bad things can happen to completely innocent people. While we don’t want to live our lives in fear everyday thinking that something like this might happen to us; we must strike a balance with not becoming complacent in thinking that it couldn’t happen.
Additional Resources for parents, caregivers, and school personnel:
Great Schools- Talking to Kids About Tragedy
Tips for Families on Addressing the Anniversary of Sandy Hook
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Kristy Wilson considers herself a “towney” having lived in the community for 24 years. She grew up in Unit #4 schools and attended the University of Illinois. Kristy is passionate about her work with youth and families in the community and is interested in how nutrition affects youth’s behavioral health. Kristy is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with a degree concentrated in community and mental health.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.