I was picking up some flour to bake a cake for a party tonight when the man in front of me in line shared the news.
“There was a terrible school shooting in Connecticut. At an elementary school. I just heard about it. It happened this morning. Twenty-seven people are reported dead, 18 of them are children.”
“An elementary school?” The check-out clerk stopped ringing up his food. “I’ve got goosebumps. This is awful.”
How does any parent in America process this information?
Most of us can’t stop crying or looking at the photographs of the parents waiting to find out if their children are okay, or swooping in to pick up their sobbing scared children. The lucky ones. The survivors.
Is there anything worse than children being murdered in cold blood in a school shooting?
Is there anything a parent fears more than that something will happen to her child?
At the end of one breaking New York Times article about the school shooting a mom says to a reporter, “I’m not going to talk to my child about this.”
We want to ignore it. We want to pretend it didn’t happen. We don’t want to talk to our children about it. We reason they are too young. We don’t want to scare them. We don’t want them to know.
But this is a mistake. In this Digital Age of cell phones and Twitter and Facebook most children—even those as young as three or four years old—will be aware that something devastating, tragic, horrible, unspeakable happened this morning at a small town elementary school in Connecticut. Pretending it didn’t won’t help keep them safe.
Children know when something’s wrong. Even if they don’t hear it on the radio or watch it on TV, they know when their parents are upset. They know when the nation is grieving.
No parent in America wants this to have happened. No parent in America wants to have to tell a child something as horrible as this.
But we need to be honest with our children.
When my friend L’s mom died her family never told her. They reasoned she was too young. They didn’t want to upset her. She was told that her mom went on a trip. She was told her mom was coming back. A grown-up with a grown child of her own now, she’s still haunted by her mother’s disappearance. Her mother was taken away from her and the adults around her robbed her of the right to talk through what happened and to grieve.
How do we talk to our children?
There’s no right way.
Here are six tips that will help you talk to your kids about a school shooting:
1) Take your cues from them: Let them ask you questions and answer them honestly without giving them more information than they can handle. “What happened Mommy?” “A very sick unhappy bad man brought a gun into a school and killed some children there.”
2) Listen and accept what they are thinking and feeling: Listen to everything they tell you, even the bad stuff, without moralizing or judging them. If your son says, “I want to kill anyone who would do something like that” now is not the time to tell him his anger and frustration and feelings of rage are wrong. Instead you could say, “It makes you really angry, doesn’t it?” and invite him to talk some more.
3) Be honest about how YOU feel without overwhelming them with your emotions: “I feel very sad about the shooting today. I am very angry at that man. I am very sorry that he did not get help. I feel so sad for the parents whose children were killed.”
4) Save your worst fears for conversations with grownups: Don’t tell your children you fear for their safety or you never want them to go to school again. Save the overwhelming emotions and your darkest fears for conversations with your partner, other parents, or a therapist.
5) Let them talk about it as much (or as little) as they want: Invite them to ask you questions and try to give them direct honest answers. If your kids don’t want to talk about it, don’t push it. But remind them (now and always) that you are always available if they want to talk about it, or anything else, even if it’s the middle of the night, and you won’t be angry if they wake you up or interrupt you if the subject is something important or if they are feeling scared.
6) Try to keep your children away from the TV and the Internet: The sensationalism and graphic nature of news programs for adults are not appropriate for children. If possible, try to keep even your older teens away from television shows. Tell them honestly you don’t want them to watch the shows and why. “I know this is interesting to you and your friends are watching it but I’m afraid it’s too upsetting and it will give you bad dreams and make you feel afraid. I’d rather we talk together and read the newspaper but I don’t think it will help us to watch this stuff on TV.”
Most adults don’t realize that children grieve differently than grown-ups. Children tend to process information in fits and starts. They can be playing and oblivious one moment and devastated and sad the next.
Don’t worry if your child doesn’t seem upset.
And don’t be concerned if your child incorporates this tragedy into their fantasy play.
Pretend play is one very effective tool children use to make sense of and process the world around them.
Time to close the computer and talk to your kids. I hope you never have to have another conversation like this again.
Published: December 14, 2012
Updated: January 12, 2020