Supporting Children After Sandy Hook Tragedy

Tragic events happen in the world every day and with today's age of information technology images and reports are readily available on television and social media. Twenty first graders were killed by a gunman in their classroom and now their faces are posted all over Facebook, Instagram and the local and national news. It's on the radio. It's what we are talking about in public and in private. This makes it impossible to avoid talking to our children about what happened.

As a children's therapist, I have received calls and e-mails from parents and teachers asking for my guidance on how to talk to the children. I have been delivering the following advice:

1. Adults, take care of your own grieving heart. Make certain you have other adults, outside of the earshot of your children, with whom you can talk and process your own emotions of despair and outrage. It is important for adults to be authentic when discussing the tragedy with children, but not overly emotional. Don't deny your sadness and anger but try to get to a place of calm and solid ground when you are with your children. Find appropriate time and place to express and work through the grip of those emotions. Attend to your own self-care.  When emotion rises, take a brisk walk as you feel your feelings. Take deep, full breaths as you feel these emotions.  Journal or talk about your feelings with a therapist trained in grief counseling or other trusted adults.

2. Turn the news off.  Don't keep the television or radio news on within your children's hearing or viewing. Be selective about what you expose yourself and your children to in terms of news. When the television is left on during a tragedy like this, graphic images and reports that you and your children may not be ready to see and hear can cause unnecessary stress and even trauma. Rather than watching the television, visit trusted news sites on the Internet and read articles rather than watching video clips. This provides information without all the sensationalized or over-exposed reporting that can cause psychological trauma potentially.

3. Monitor social media activity and exposure. It is my opinion that children under the age of 13 should not have access to their own social media accounts and should not have access to browsing the Internet without close supervision of parents or trusted adults. There is too much risk of exposure to images and information that is not healthy for children at this age. Once children are 13 years old they can have a Facebook and Instagram account but be certain you have access and are monitoring their activity within reason. They should be permitted age appropriate privacy in terms of private messages with friends but it is wise to let them know it is your job to keep them safe and while you are not going to snoop into their private messages, you do need to have access to their social media accounts and will be checking in. This provides a window into your child's social world and sometimes a view of what they are feeling they might not otherwise tell you. Keep the dialogue going with children over 13 about what they may be seeing on the Internet with regard to this tragedy.

3. Observe normal routines. As much as possible, keep your family on its normal schedule and observe normal routines. This provides children with an experience of security.

4. Consider age and developmental appropriateness. It's not advisable to talk to a five year old the same way you're going to talk to your teen.  The following age groups are approximate and general. 

  • Children under the age of 7 don't need to hear a lot of words. At this age, they need to be reassured that they are safe and that while scary things do happen sometimes, there are lots of helpers in the world keeping us safe. If they ask questions, answer them with simple, honest answers minus detail.  Affirm their feelings.  Let them know all of their feelings are okay and that lots of people are feeling (sad, scared, worried) right now.  Then return to the reassurance they are safe.  I recommend that you protect children this age from seeing the news on television or on computers and other devices. They simply do not have cognitive ability to handle and process those images and reports.
  • Children ages 8 to 11 also need to be reassured that they are safe and that everything they may be feeling is perfectly normal.  At this age they also should be protected from exposure to media images and reports but in the case they do see it or want to see some of it, selectively choose which media report and read or watch it with them. Answer questions they have honestly and reassuringly but keep the answers simple.  There is no need to go into grim detail or elaborate explanations with children this age. It is important to let them know that there are a lot of adults who are working together to learn from this tragedy so we can help prevent it from happening again. The key here is to reassure them that there are adults, including you and their teachers, who are here to protect them and keep them safe.
  • Children ages 12-14 These are the children in the middle school years and we see so much rapid development for kids in this age bracket.  Some are more mature than others so it's important to use discretion as you know your child best.  Don't overestimate their cognitive ability to process all of this information. Keep them in their routine, ask them if they are having questions or feelings they want to discuss. Children this age often will clam up and isolate. Make sure you tell them it is normal to have all kinds of feelings and thoughts when a tragedy like this happens and that it is healthy to talk about it or write about it.  Invite them to talk about it or ask questions. Encourage them to move their bodies and have fun with friends.  Keep them in their routine.
  • Teens ages 15-18 By the time they are in high school it's even more important to encourage dialogue.  Don't have these conversations within earshot of the younger children, however.  Set aside time and space to engage in conversation with your teen. Ask your teen his opinion on violence in schools and society and on the issues being discussed widely such as gun control and mental health.  Empower your adolescent child to consider what she can do to contribute to efforts in your community to make schools safer.  Additionally, it's important for kids this age to understand all the feelings that are normal for all of us to experience after a tragedy like this.


5. Look for signs of lingering anxiety and depression. It is important for us to understand that "mental health" is a continuum and that most people experience some level of anxiety and/or depression at some point in their lives that is triggered by particular events and situations. It's important to know that this is not necessarily a permanent mental health illness and that there are professionals who can provide immediate support and relief from anxiety and depression. Signs of lingering anxiety and/or depression might be isolation, withdrawal, loss of appetite, over-eating, acting out behavior such as atypical tantrums or outbursts, loss interest in favorite activities, trouble going to sleep or frequent waking in the night. Any marked changes in your child's behavior that lingers beyond a week or two after the tragedy would be something you will want to talk with a professional about.

For children up to age 12 play therapy is the most effective means for helping children who are having a hard time after such a tragedy.  Look for a therapist who is a Registered Play Therapist (RPT) or someone in training and supervision working toward this credential.  Play therapy allows children to express and work through their anxiety and other emotions non-verbally, using play and play techniques.  It is a powerful and effective method of assisting children.

For children 13-18 look for a therapist who specializes in working with adolescents and who is versed in cognitive behavioral therapy.  Sometimes group therapy can be very effective for teens because developmentally their focus is on connection with their peers.

It is important that parents, teachers, school counselors, mental health professionals, government officials and other community members work together to communicate about how we can best support our community's children in the aftermath of such a tragedy.  Open dialogue is key. Don't hesitate to reach out for help in knowing how best to support yourself and your children through this difficult time.

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