When faced with parenting’s most difficult situations, my first reach out for understanding and advice is usually to Dr. Joshua Sparrow of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center in Boston, and and author of numerous books on the parenting life.
Here are his thoughts on how to talk to children about today’s tragedy in Newtown:
1. “It’s not unlike the aftermath of other school shootings, and unfortunately we’ve had way too much experience with those already. You want to reassure your children…very young children will most want to know if they are safe, if this could happen to them. (Of course we all worry about that, but for very young children their questions may stop once they are assured.) That’s why it’s so important to emphasize how extremely rare something like this is. Give them examples of what extremely rare means, because rare can be an abstract concept depending on the age of your child.”
2. “Keep in mind that most children know something happened, and, rather than try to shield them from it all completely, it’s better to find a way to say something to them about it, even briefly. We saw this wish in some parents after 9/11, too. The point is that of course we wish such young children didn’t have to know about things like this, but of course they do know that something big has happened–all they need do is look at the expressions on their parents’ faces. This is why providing some limited age-appropriate information is important. Otherwise, the child is all alone with knowing that something terrible has happened and has only their imagination to fill in the blanks.”
3. “So listen to their questions. In a sensitive way, try to find out what they are worried about. Kids in the 6-12 range are natural problem solvers. Some may want to chat about what they would do in a similar situation or about how things happened. They may also wonder how someone could do that. (That may be the main focus for adolescents.) We don’t know enough about [the Newtown shooter yet] to be able to answer the question, but we do know that most mass murders like this are committed by really disturbed people—obviously. When trying to sort out how much and what kind of information to share with your child, the key here is to follow their lead and their behavioral signals (like body language and other signs of discomfort) so as to avoid saying more than they are ready for.”
4. “Adolescents may wonder what they can do. The first would be to send letters of condolence and support to Newtown and Sandy Hook. Doing something feels better than doing nothing. Also, they can help build a movement to put back into place the assault weapons ban (like the one under Clinton and Bush). They can learn what the real deal is and help keep the issue squarely focused on that. No country on the planet comes close to the US for per capita ownership of semi-automatic and automatic weapons. The issue is not mental illness [alone]–other countries have the same amount of mental illness, but fewer guns and fewer mass murders. And there is zero evidence that if other adults in the school had been walking around with guns that the killings would have been prevented.
“Adolescents are very interested in truth and justice. These kinds of issues are among the things people start thinking about in adolescence. They don’t like to be manipulated. They can also stand up to people who say such tragedies shouldn’t be politicized. This is too serious and affects too many people to not be political, and steps toward reducing the risk involve politics–new legislation banning assault weapons. And keep in mind that Second Amendment supporters are free to add their support to an assault weapon ban. When that amendment was written, there were no assault weapons. So there is no contradiction between supporting the Second Amendment and banning these kinds of weapons.”
5. “One final piece of advice (especially if the news is upsetting to your children) is to tune out the TV–visual images are more likely to be traumatizing than words. They give you a sensory experience, but they don’t give you a way to think about things. What helps us settle down and move on is to have a way to think about things. That is precisely why children ask all the questions they do.”
As always, thank you, Dr. Sparrow.
Eric Messinger is Editor of New York Family. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org