By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
How does a parent talk to a child about an event as horrific as Friday's shooting in a Connecticut school that left at least 20 children and 8 adults dead?
The first thing to do is to talk to your child, of any age, says Janet Childs, the director of education, training and critical incident stress management for the Centre for Living with Dying program of Bill Wilson Center in San Jose and Santa Clara.
Children, even very young ones, will hear the news. "Make time to sit down and address it," she says. "To think that we can protect them from it is, I believe, unrealistic."
"They do understand that a tragedy has happened and that adults are upset," she says.
Other experts warn, however, to not push a child to talk about something they do not want to talk about.
Let children know, Ms. Childs says, that what happened is sad and heart-breaking, but it does not happen very often. Children, she says, often worry that if something happened elsewhere, that it could happen to them. Let children know, she says, that it will not happen everywhere.
With small children, she says, keep the conversation simple and short.
"It is beyond our comprehension. It's OK to tell the kids that," she says.
"The first step is to acknowledge," what happened and that they, and you, may feel sad, helpless, lonely or scared, she says.
"One of the things I suggest is that when they get home today that they hug their kids," Ms. Childs says. Tell children you love and appreciate them and tell them what is being done to make it safe in their home and schools.
Next, she says, allow children to take some sort of action responding to what has happened. If they want to do something, "we can send our concern, our love and our energy," says, perhaps in the form of a letter to the students at the Sandy Hook School, or a poster that children write their wishes and thoughts on. "That gives them an action step to be able to do something."
Another action that older kids might take is lighting a candle. "A candle is a symbol of light, a universal symbol ... of hope and healing," she says. "You can do that at home, too."
Ms. Childs says that she hopes schools will give students a chance to talk about the events. "It is very important for them to be able to talk about it," she says, and often children won't talk to their parents.
Among other resources available to parents who want more information about talking to their children are several sites shared by Cynthia Shaw, regional communications director for the American Red Cross:
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Tips for Talking to Children After a Traumatic Event
• Provide children with opportunities to talk about what they are seeing on television and to ask questions.
• Do not be afraid to admit that you cannot answer all of their questions.
• Answer questions at a level the child can understand.
• Provide ongoing opportunities for children to talk. They probably will have more questions as time goes on.
• Use this as an opportunity to establish a family emergency plan. Feeling that there is something you can do may be very comforting to both children and adults.
• Allow children to discuss other fears and concerns about unrelated issues. This is a good opportunity to explore these issues also.
• Monitor children's television watching. Some parents may wish to limit their child's exposure to graphic or troubling scenes. To the extent possible, be present when your child is watching news coverage of the event. It is at these times that questions might arise.
• Helping Your Child Manage Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting: tips developed by the American Psychological Association.