It’s the story we are all discussing. A 20-year-old man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School dressed in black and open fired on classrooms of innocent children. The tragedy is almost too much to fathom. School is supposed to be a safe place where parents entrust their children. A situation like this shatters that in so many ways, regardless of how old you are.
There is little ability to make sense of this situation. Not only are the children feeling scared and overwhelmed, parents are feeling their own fear and worry. It’s important to recognize that for yourselves too. While navigating your own emotions, you must be prepared for the questions your children may ask.
It is also important to consider if you should tell your child, or wait until your child comes to you and asks about it. You must consider the age of your child when thinking about this question. Older children have such access to information; it is important that you are involved in their acquisition and are there to discuss it with them. For your younger children, they may not need to know all of the details, rather need to know that you will do your best to protect them and that they are safe. Follow their lead, and don’t over talk. Not always easy to do.
More specifically, what can you say, and do, for the children in your life?
1) Limit exposure: This conversation is happening everywhere, and you have to be the monitor for your children. It will depend on the age of your child, but do your best to limit exposure as much as possible (especially for the younger ones). Turn off the television; put away the newspapers; monitor Internet usage.
2) Be open to talking: There will be lots of questions, with few answers. Don’t shy away from the discussion though. Discuss their fears and worries. Validate them and encourage your child to continue to reach out for help, if they feel they need it.
3) Prepare for behavior changes: The world in which your child lives just changed, which may cause them to act differently than they normally would. Your child might be needier than usual. There may be sleep disturbances, eating issues, more clingy behaviors. This is to be expected. Provide assurances that your child is okay. Create opportunities for expression of feelings, and places for your child to expend some of the pent-up energy he/she may feel.
4) Provide reassurance: With so many questions and so few answers, your child is going to express fear and worry about being safe. Ensure your child that everyone is working to keep him/her safe, and to make schools safe. The truth is there are more good people than bad, and that these situations do happen infrequently.
5) Take care of yourself: You, as a parent, have your own reactions and worries to this situation. It’s important that you stay as calm as possible in the moment, even though your emotions will be triggered. If you need support, reach out for it.
As difficult as it is to go back to “life as we know it,” resuming some sort of normalcy is important to do. That doesn’t mean that the questions will not still come, and that you don’t need to be prepared. But, children do better when they can return to routines that they know.
If the anxiety and fear persists, and you feel that you need more support, do not hesitate to reach out to professionals for help.