Helping Young Children Cope with Tragedy: Newtown
Newtown, Connecticut. A sleepy little town less than one hour away from where I was born. I watched in horror, with the rest of the world, as the tragedy in this small town unfolded. The trauma surrounding these events is a heavy burden to bear for the town of Newtown, and it will undoubtedly leave an indelible mark. Traumatologists, counselors, clergy and other supports will converge upon Newtown, to assist in helping its people begin to cope and pick up the pieces. It will be a long road to healing. On behalf of Kidlutions, I offer our condolences, thoughts and prayers.
The tragedy in Newton impacts children and families across the country. If it can happen in Newtown, it can happen anywhere. Nobody is exempt. This tragedy creates a ripple effect of fear for many.
The Ripple Effect
The horrific events that occurred in Newton affect us nationwide, and because we so connected through media and social media, it isn't a far stretch to say that this affects us globally. Thousands of miles away from the tragic site, children will see images of the trauma, overhear older children and adults talking about it and see cover story graphics at the news stand for weeks and months to come. The tragedy that unfolded in a matter of minutes, will replay over and over again.
How Parents and Teachers Can Help
There are some guidelines we can follow that will help when talking to young children about the tragedy:
1. Don't Assume the Child Knows Nothing
Although you may not have told the child about the tragedy, he may have overheard adult conversations or other schoolmates discussing the shooting, view a TV News Bulletin or see graphic images on TV.
If your child begins asking questions about the shootings, you will absolutely want to discuss it with him. Ask: "What do you know?" "What did you hear?" Listen for the child to make mention of the shootings and gently probe to learn what they know.
Tell the truth, but in an age-appropriate manner. You do not have give all of the details. Young children benefit from hearing the basics: "A bad person hurt some people. It was scary. Lots of good people rushed in to help. Now it is over and he cannot hurt anyone else."
4. Be Honest
Share that a bad thing did happen, but that it is being taken care of.
5. Focus on the Positives
Focus on the "helper" people. When bad things happen, helper people come to help. Police and ambulance workers got there quickly to help the people they could. You might say, "Lots of good people are helping the town now. Policemen, firefighters, ambulance workers, neighbors, counselors and clergy all came rushing in to help. People will be very sad. The people will help each other start to feel better."
6. Let Them Know They are Safe
Young children may think that their own personal safety is at risk. Let them know that they are safe and that things will remain the same in your community and household. Acknowledge that it is a scary thing that happened, but that it is over. What happened in that school almost never, ever, ever happens. That is the truth. This does not constitute a "lie" to children, as I have seen suggested in some places. School shootings are absolutely tragic. Beyond comprehension. One school shooting is too many, but statistically speaking, they are rare. This is what we want to focus on to help increase a child's sense of safety.
6. Limit Media Exposure
With cable and sattellite TV, news outlets are available 24/7. Be careful to ensure that your child is not exposed to ongoing stories about the shootings. Young children may believe the shootings are happening over and over again, or are still going on. Best to find the news you are looking for after they are in bed, or on your computer or mobile device.
7. Give Plenty of Hugs
Children always need physical affection, but they may need even more during times of stress or anxiety. Hugs, back rubs and other physical activities and close contact sooth the limbic system (the "seat" of the emotions in the brain).
All of us at Kidlutions are sending prayers and healing vibes to Newtown and its surrounding areas.