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What Do You Say To Your Kids When Tragedy Occurs: Explaining the Newtown Shooting

As the story of the Newtown Shooting unfolded, the hearts of mothers and fathers ached for their children. Even living on the opposite coast of where the Newtown Shooting occurred, knowing logically that our children were physically safe from said shooter, it weighed heavily upon the safety of our children. When it was learned that most of the victims were kindergarteners, I swear I could hear the cry of mothers, fathers, grandparents audibly in the gray skies. Even the address by our commander in chief could not deliver a note of condolences without shedding a tear.

As mothers, and other caretakers, prepare to drive up to their local school in the next few minutes or hours, it is a wonder of how to talk with your children about the horrible news. Is it even necessary that they know? Children will learn of this tragedy no matter where they live. There will be discussions that may be small and quick, while others may be long and inquisitive. How many people in America have never heard of the 9/11 attacks?

The question is what do I say? This will depend on the age of your child and their life experiences. Here is a quick guide.

1. Just the Facts: Just report the facts simply. The rest of the conversation will be dictated by your child. For some, those fact will be enough, while others will be more curious. Likewise, if your child has experienced any sort of trauma, there is a higher likelihood that he/she will be more effected by this.
2. They are safe: Reassure kids that they are currently safe and that they will be safe at school. If a child still feels anxious about school, remind them of any disaster drills they have had at school. Remind them that despite the tragedy, 570 kids followed the instruction of their teachers, remembered their disaster drill tasks and were just fine. Remind them to listen to the adult they have been entrusted to.
3. Teaching moment: By you telling your child about the Newtown Shooting, it gives you the opportunity to open a discussion about a variety of topics: compassion, frustration tolerance, disaster preparedness, safety, faith, and reaching out. For some children who are more sensitive, they may want to do something to help which can be as simple as a card. The teaching moment may be a point you want to make, but it will be more impactful if it is derived from their line of questions.
4. Don't watch: Don't watch or listen to media about the Newtown Shooting with your children. If they are able to watch TV, they will see news clips. Shield them from those images, if at all possible. Kids that watched 9/11 news didn't realize the video clips were replays and thought the event was occurring over and over again. If for whatever reason, you can not, or could not shield them from the images and other media, process what they heard and saw, reminding them about their own safety.

In the end, you don't want to scare them and you want them to know that they are safe. Contemplative child thinkers may not say much today, but may bring up the subject at Christmas dinner when you least expect it. These sort of topics have a way of cycling in and out of our discussions. So be prepared that just because you think the conversation is over, it may not be for them. Likewise, don't expect that they will want to have any discussion about the incident. If they don't care to discuss it, drop it. Children under 6 are less likely to want to have a discussion.

With that said, it will likely take much longer for us, as parents to heal, from the vicarious tragedy we can imagine that has occurred to another family.  Allow yourself the grieving of the incident and process it with other parents, as the kids may have moved on. They have not been flooded with the images. They have not lived through other disasters to know the depth of this. Allow them to be a kid, yet be open for their questions.

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