The entire nation mourns when tragedy strikes a school like Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. The pain must be unbearable for the families and friends of the children and educators who were so mercilessly killed. When a crisis like this happens, each individual must learn to move forward in their own way. We are forever changed, however, and we must establish a “new normal” life as soon as we can. This is true for us and also for our children. As parents, we worry. We want our children to feel safe and happy, yet we feel inadequate because we do not know how to help them when we ourselves are also hurting.
Children take their cues from the trusted adults around them. If they see that you are upset, they will be upset as well. Try to stay calm as you answer their questions. There is no need to tell them everything, especially if they are very young. Focus only on what your child has already heard, and make sure you do not keep the television on where your child hears and sees the story over and over again.
Your children need your assurance that you are there with them and will take care of them. Talk about the policemen, firemen, doctors, and nurses who took care of everyone at the school and how lucky we are to have people like that to help us when we need it. They also need to know that this is an extremely rare occurrence. It is very unlikely that it will happen in your child’s school.
Keep in mind what LeAnna Webber, a school psychologist in Cincinnati says: “This shooting was the work of a very sick individual. It is certainly very scary, and schools are doing everything they can to prevent it from ever happening again.” Webber says to emphasize to children that there are thousands of schools, and the chance of such an event occurring at any one is very low. As well, she adds, “It may make kids feel more secure to ask their teachers about their lockdown procedures and ask if they can practice those again. All schools have crisis plans and teachers are trained and practice what to do in any number of emergency situations. If you think about it, those procedures saved lives in Sandy Hook.”
Children respond differently to events like this. Some seem pretty much normal, and others are frightened, angry, or worried. Children need to know that no matter how they are feeling, it is OK. Even children who do not seem to be affected may actually be feeling emotional. If possible, get your children to tell you how they are feeling inside. Tell them you feel the same way, and assure them that you love them and will be there for them. What children need to know is that their own life isn’t going to change.
It is important to stay physically close to your children until you are sure they are feeling safe. Try to stick to your normal family routine as much as possible. But if your child needs extra support such as sleeping with a light on, reading an extra bedtime story, sitting in your lap, or extra hugs, you should allow it. It is sometimes helpful to involve them in locking the doors before bed and talking about your family’s safety rules.
We all find comfort in different ways. Some children are comforted by writing or drawing. Older kids might want to write a poem in honor of the children who lost their lives or send cards to their families. Younger children could draw a picture to send to the school or the policemen who responded to the tragedy. Some might want to attend a memorial service for these children or a prayer vigil to pray for all of our schools and teachers. Children may want to contribute their allowance to charities that help victims of tragedy. All of these give us a sense that we are helping in the only ways we know how and can provide the emotional comfort we need.
If you find that your child continues to feel angry, afraid, or otherwise emotional longer than you expect they should, seek help from a counselor or psychologist. Events like what occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary are traumatic, and some children need more support than what a parent is able to give. A trained professional may be better able to help your child feel safe and secure.
Finally, you also need to take care of yourself. When you have to be strong for your children, it takes a toll on you. You feel pain as you imagine what it would be like to lose your own child. You may also need professional help to deal with this pain. Do not be too proud to seek that help.
For additional reading, see the National Association of School Psychologists handout, A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope.