In the wake of the Newtown Sandy Hook Elementary school tragedy, an event without precedent but feeling too close to home, many Groton parents were left wondering “What should I do? How can I talk to my kids about this?” The Groton Line asked Groton experts for their thoughts. Alice Lenhart, a mental health counselor at Rivier College, and Betsy Dolan, a member of the Board of Directors of the Groton-Dunstable Alliance For Youth and a counselor at Ayer-Shirley School District responded with their thoughts. Each provided links to additional resources you may find helpful; they are gathered in a special section at the end of the story. — Ed.
Groton resident and counselor Alice Lenhart summarized the problem, “The children most affected by the news are older elementary, middle and high school kids. Although limiting exposure of the recent news event to very young children would be prudent, the children who are more traumatized by news coverage are older elementary and above. I would caution parents to monitor the Internet, TV, and other media exposureâ€.
Lenhart provided these suggestions:
In the immediate days of a tragedy such as Sandy Hook, many of us are left wondering what to do and what to say to our children. While the experts may be able to offer general guidelines to parents as they try to help their children cope, remember that you know your child best and you can and should trust your “gutâ€ when it comes to addressing such a national tragedy with your child. Responses will vary, depending on proximity to the event. Those living very close to the event or who might have known someone involved will require a different response than those who are at more of a distance. Determine the impact of the event on your child as you decide how best to respond. The following tips may help you find the most appropriate responses as you help your own children.
Take care of yourself
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that our children take their cues from us. They are attuned to our moods and our reactions, even when we think they aren”t paying any attention to us. It is therefore important that we practice self-care as a way of making ourselves more available to our children. Talk to other adults and friends about your own feelings, and take a little time to do things that help you reconnect to your own sense of well-being and security, such as exercising, doing chores, or seeking comfort in your church or temple. Think of the emergency instructions given when flying on an airplane: put the oxygen mask on yourself first so that you can then help those around you. This concept may seem contrary to our initial instincts in wanting to help our children but we are better equipped for the job when we have taken care of ourselves first.
Monitor media exposure
Contrary to popular belief, research shows that older children are more affected by news stories than younger children. Very young children don”t generally have the cognitive development to understand what the news is saying to them. Older children (7+) do understand and are more sensitive to images and graphic information. Limit exposure to news overage on TV and the Internet as much as possible.
Find out what your child already knows
If your child asks you about what happened in Sandy Hook, ask him to tell you what he already knows about it. In this way you can determine the level of detail your child already knows and address those concerns. Answer questions honestly using age-appropriate language. Avoid over-sharing information and belaboring the traumatic aspects of this event. If your older children don”t already know about Sandy Hook, it might be advisable to share it with them as a way of letting them know they might hear about it at school or from friends, and that you wanted to be able to talk about it with them first.
You don”t have to have all the answers
You may not be able to answer all of your child”s questions. When that happens, you can help our children formulate their own answers that can often become the most self-assuring. It”s okay to say “I don”t know the answer to that. What do you think about that?â€ Children make meaning at their own and unique developmental stage. Their own explanations to themselves often make the most sense and help them move on.
Be aware of triggers
If your family or child has experienced past trauma, exposure to the violence of Sandy Hook can be very triggering. If your child is showing signs of trauma (nightmares, difficulty concentrating, being unusually afraid, extreme emotions, etc), consult with your mental health care provider or your doctor.
Focus on the goodness of others
Focus on the ways we help each other. Draw your child”s attention to all the people who help others when people get hurt or scared. List all the people in your town who care about children and their safety and talk about all the ways they show up for us throughout the year.
Random acts of kindness can heal random acts of violence
When we help others, we feel better. Help your children feel a part of hope and help by inviting them to practice random acts of kindness with you. Whether you make a card to send to the Sandy Hook Elementary School, or act on a more local level by reaching out to those in need here, you are showing your children that they too can be helpers and responders to such a tragedy. They will feel a part of the solution–empowered instead of helpless.
Check in with your child from time to time as to how they are doing. Remember that children are incredibly resilient and are apt to move on quickly. Keep in mind that they are often more upset by our (parent) reactions than by the event itself. If your child doesn”t seem to have a strong interest or reaction to the news, allow your child to move on. Follow and trust your child”s lead. They usually give us the best cues.
Dolan, member of the Board of directors of the Groton-Dunstable Alliance For Youth, GDAY and School Counselor in the Ayer-Shirley School District, wrote:
No person or organization can make sense of the recent tragedy in Newtown Connecticut. Groton Dunstable Alliance for Youth would like to highlight a few online article resources from Massachusetts General Hospital and the American Psychological Association and Time.com. They highlight important points for those interested in how to communicate to their children over this recent tragic event.
Both Lenhart and Dolan provided links for more information and for additional resources.
From Dolan and GDAY:
“How Can Parents Help Children After a National Tragedy?â€ written by Gene Beresin, MD, of Mass General Hospital, co-director of the Center for Mental Health and medical director of the MGH Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic: http://www.massgeneral.org/about/newsarticle.aspx?id=3912
Resource articles from American Psychological Association specifically written in the aftermath of the recent Newtown Connecticut tragedy:
- Talking to Your Children About the Recent Spate of School Shootings: http://www.apa.org/topics/violence/school-shooting.aspx
- Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/aftermath.aspx
- Managing your distress (as an adult) in the Aftermath of a Shooting: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/mass-shooting.aspx
And finally, a fund has been established by the the Connecticut United Way to support the Sandy Hook School at https://newtown.uwwesternct.org