How to talk to kids and tweens about tragedies

The news of the absolutely tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, is horrific.  Many children and adults are dead, with recent reports bringing the death toll at the school to 26, including 18 children.  Upon first hearing the news, I wanted to hug my daughter, wanted to go to her elementary school, pull her out and hold her as close to me as humanly possible.

Not only would that mortifiy her in front of her friends, I know it is not an appropriate response. I can wait the two hours until her school day is over.  That will give me time to dry my tears and pull myself together.  It is best not to disrupt her routine, I know. But I didn’t know how exactly how to handle this news with her, so I’ve done some research and here’s what I’ve found about discussing tragedy with tweens.  Having discussions about such awful events is a part of parenting that I wish we never had to experience. Sadly, that is not the case. Here are some pointers:

1. It is best to tell her about the shooting and discuss it. Part of me is tempted to leave the TV off and shield her from all the awful news in the world, especially this. All sources say that that approach won’t work.  There is a 24 hour news cycle, and it’s tough to avoid it. Peers, especially tweens, talk, about this and everything else. You want your child to be aware, and provide them with accurate information.  Inaccurate rumors from classmates can make your child more upset.  So yes, I will be pulling it together prior to school pick up. You don’t have to inundated them with information, certainly don’t do that. But give them the basics, and ask if they have questions. Dr. Michele Borba advises parents to “use a calm, reassuring, matter of fact statement that conveys safety. Answer questions directly, honestly, but at your child’s level of understanding.”

2. Tweens need reassurance.  They may act like they are tough, and they may appear to be unaffected, but we all know that tweens have a lot more going on inside than is obvious on the outside. Just like younger children, they need to know that you are there for them and that they are loved. Again, being calm is important. It’s hard for kids to feel like they are in a safe place where they can find comfort if their parents aren’t okay. That’s not to say that you can’t show emotion, but you can do so in a way that conveys your feelings about the event while reassuring them. They may roll their eyes at the hugs, but those hugs are important. Give them freely.

3. Look for the helpers. Find the heroes.  Mr. Rogers said that his mother told him that in times of trouble or tragedy, look for the helpers and you will always find people who are helping others. There are always people doing good.  Focusing on the helpers, the heroes can help your child focus on something other than the horrific loss of life. Aha! explains, “There’s no way to make sense of a tragedy like this, but we can take some solace in the fact that dire circumstances can call forth the best in human beings.” I think it is helpful to tell your tween that you do not understand the tragedy, and that there are sometimes not explanations for why such events happen, but you can ask them why people help others, and make sense of that.

4. Turn off the TV. Many sources says to limit your child’s viewing of coverage of the shooting, as graphic details are upsetting, to any age group.

5. Monitor your child’s behavior.  The American Academy of Pediatrics, adolescents are generally more affected by tragic events, and may be more tired and irritable and possibly even try new and harmful things like alcohol or drugs. If you see behavior that concerns you, speak with your family doctor and your child’s school.

6. Try to empower your child. That’s not an easy task in this situation, but you can assure your child that they have the ability to make this world a better place. When tragedy strikes, encourage children to share love. The world needs it right now. Make a holiday card for someone. Bake some cookies for a neighbor. Take some groceries to the food pantry. No, it does not directly impact the community of Newtown, CT. But it impacts your community. Doing something is never a bad thing. Say a prayer or think good thoughts together, and be grateful that you are, in fact, together. Savor that fact.

Our thoughts and prayers are with all of those impacted by this horrible tragedy.

Some helpful articles on the subject of discussing tragedy in the media with children:

How To Talk with Kids about Tragedies Like the Aurora, Colorado Shooting from Aha!
How To Talk To Kids About Tragedies In The Media from the Childhood Development Institute
Talking to Kids About the Norway Tragedy by Dr. Michele Borba
Talking About Tragic Events by, created by the Massachusetts Children’s Trust Fund
Tragic Events in the News by The Fred Rogers Company

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Talking to Tweens about 9/11.
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