The events that occurred on Friday in Newton, Connecticut bear no comprehensible explanation. In short, what we witnessed is a horror that renders us all speechless. Perhaps not since 9/11, have Americans felt so vulnerable to the expression of evil cloaked in humanity. It is a stirring reminder that we are not safe.
As mental health professionals at LifeWork Counseling, we want to respond to the events that occurred in on Friday. We join the nation in mourning the loss of the precious lives, children and adults, who were killed in this tragedy. No words can be said to make sense of such an event and it will continue to shock and overwhelm us for a long time to come.
Monday morning will be especially difficult for children across the country who will return to school. We would like to address how to speak with children regarding acts of violence. Our children are impacted by violence when it occurs. We live in a culture where the news comes streaming into our homes 24 hours a day and is accessible through many media portals. Even if you limit their exposure to the news, children have an uncanny ability to hear information they are not mature enough to handle.
Knowing your children will likely learn about these tragic events of violence, it is important that you be the primary dispenser of information. Also, you want to be aware of the effect this may have on their sense of security. They may have questions or may experience symptoms associated with anxiety, including nightmares, and will need you to help make their world safe again. You need to be the one to comfort and support them. You know your child the very best and will be able to give them the information in a way that they can handle.
Before you speak to your children, process your own reactions to the event with other adults so that you have an outlet for your emotions. Some parents want to avoid speaking to their children or do not think it is appropriate. Because of the nature of social media, if your child is around others, they will likely hear what happened. Of course, the version your kids hear from other children might not be accurate, or may include information that is age-inappropriate.
Remember to keep information age appropriate. For early school children brief information is the best and then answer questions as they come. Older elementary to middle school children they may ask tougher questions and have a more difficult time comprehending what occurred. Be prepared to answer their questions to the best of your ability and reassure them that you will do the best you can to protect them. High schoolers may have strong opinions on what happened.
In preparing to have these conversations remember also that for younger children the event may not be real to them. They may hear it but have little reaction since it has not impacted them directly. They cannot comprehend the full extent of the crisis.
- Begin a conversation emphasizing that the child is safe and in a case like the one in Connecticut, explaining how their school keeps them safe. Talk to them about the many ways we and the other adults around them keep them safe. For older children discuss the drills that happen at school and for younger children make a game out of it, having them point out all the ways that adults keep them safe.
- Turn off everything that has an “on” switch and listen. This does not have to be just a discussion about what happened in Connecticut but about anything. Having a space of time to talk and listen leads to lots of interesting discussions. For teens, invite them to “run errands” with you with a promise of a Starbucks stops at the end. For some teens, talking is easier to do when they aren’t looking at you. Do this frequently. Children need our time without having to share it without having to fight for our attention
- Watch how your child reacts. Some children don’t say much but their behavior can signal they are feeling. If they begin to have sleep or eating problems this may indicate some anxiety or depression. They may be absorbing more than you realize.
- Limit television exposure. The news is now 24 hours a day. It frequently repeats the same information just in different ways. This can be confusing for a child. Each time the event is reported on television, for a child it can feel like it is happening again. On Friday, CBS recognized the importance of limiting what children were seeing and had Christmas shows from 7 pm to 9 pm without any mention of what was occurring in Newton. This was so important for so many families to have a “break” from the exposure.
- Our children watch us. Model for them. Be aware of how much you are absorbing and how you are reacting. For older children sharing your sadness can be very appropriate but for younger children they may not be thinking of the event any longer. A parent continuing to discuss it, watch the news and focus on the event might be very upsetting to a child.
- Keep routines. Children need to know what happens next. They really have very little say in their lives, keeping the routine the same allows them some control. Routine is comforting for children. If you are struggling with keeping their routine consistent it may signal that you need to talk to someone about your own feelings.
- As adults be sensitive to others. Be kind to others. Remember how others may be impacted by the events in Newton and be kind to them. Find opportunities to be kind and loving to those around you. Make contact with those around you and connect with others. Children will see the good in the world when they see you see the good in the world.
- Volunteer your time as a family. Helping others creates a sense of control but also it creates a sense of confidence. It conveys that the world is a good place and that they have control over improving it.
There is a quote from Mr. Rogers shared on the internet Friday night. It resonated with so many about children and safety.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look at the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster.” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers-so many caring people in the world.”
If you sense that you or a family member is having difficulty coping with this event please do not hesitate to contact us. This is a national tragedy and we like so many of you are praying for those in Newton and throughout the country to find peace. Hug your children every day, look them in the eye and tell them you love them.
In our next article we will discuss the mental health aspects that may have factored into the heinous event. The profile of perpetuators of violence have similar mental health problems. Early intervention is a key to interrupt the pattern and give help to those on the edge of violence. We will also address what each of us can do to prevent this from happening again.
Bethany Genenbacher, Clinical Director
Don Olund, Executive Director