This week’s tragic elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, has most parents feeling a variety of difficult emotions—sorrow, anger, disbelief, fear. For parents who have themselves witnessed or been victims of violence or other traumatizing events, news of the shooting may also trigger old wounds and deep anxieties.
As we struggle ourselves to come to terms with this event, we also wonder how best to discuss this kind of news with our children. They may see it on the news, they may hear us talking about it with our spouse, or they may hear about it at school from their peers. So how do we as parents appropriately engage our children with such a difficult and tragic topic?
The first step to helping your children effectively process a disruptive or frightening event is to take care of yourself first. This means processing your own feelings of anger, sorrow, or confusion so that you can engage your children in a steady, calming way. Approaching this kind of topic with unbridled emotion can be alarming to your children and undermine their sense of security and safety.
With young children, there is usually no need to initiate a discussion of tragic events that have not directly impacted them. It’s generally better to wait for them to bring it up and then to listen, answer questions, and offer perspective. Acknowledge their fears and give them the freedom to express their feelings and concerns, but remind them that “this rarely happens and you are safe.”
Teens may benefit from a more direct approach, with you soliciting their opinions, thoughts, and reactions. Probing, discussing macabre details of the event, or constantly viewing media coverage, however, are not likely to help your teen. Instead, remain open and curious, answer questions, and—perhaps most importantly—be honest. Consistent honesty helps preserve your credibility with your children and fosters a sense of safety and reliability.
Sensitive young people can be deeply triggered by news of this sort—especially those who have experienced trauma in the past. Signs of emotional distress and post-traumatic issues include:
- changes in school performance or engagement
- changes in diet
- sleep disruption
- expressions of worry
- angry outbursts or tantrums
If you see behavioral changes that cause you concern, seek help immediately. Early intervention can greatly improve both the speed and degree of healing that occurs in those suffering from trauma.