News & Events

Newtown tragedy is a time to talk to your children, and assure them they are safe

December 14, 2012

By James O’Dea, PhD
Backus Health System Vice President and clinical psychologist

The shooting in the quiet town of Newtown, Connecticut has been described as one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.  And unlike Columbine and the Aurora, Colorado movie shootings, this massacre occurred very close to home.

Making it even worse, preliminary estimates are that 18 of the 27 people killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School were children. These factors raise the issue of when is it appropriate to talk to your children about what happened, and what information is suitable?

As a father myself, this is a critical issue. And even with my background in psychiatry, very hard to address. Most experts say that you should not bring this up to children under 9, and leave the television off, as the murder scene was described as “atrocious,” with children hiding in closets and other places clinging to their lives.

These high profile crimes are always hard on children, and when you add in the close proximity and that it involved elementary school children, you’ve got the potential for some very stressful times for children, parents and teachers.

While some parents might consider shielding their children from this terrible news, it is unlikely they will be successful.

And if parents decide not to talk about it  – and children hear about it or see it somewhere else – they may come up with their own explanations and become scared ore even permanently traumatized.

As tough as it may seem, you should use these situations as an opportunity to talk to your children, especially those nine years old and older. And if children under 9 ask questions, you should answer them as best you can, ensuring them that they are safe at home and school. Here are some tips for talking to children:

  • Encourage them to talk about how they feel, and ask questions.
  • Answer questions straightforwardly. If you don’t have the answer, admit it and try to get it for them later.
  • Acknowledge their fears, but reassure them that these incidents are not common, and they are safe. For example, many schools have security measures in place to stop something like this from happening.
  • Point out the positive. The first responders to the shooting were heroes, much like the 9-11 firefighters.
  • Limit their exposure to tragic events in the media, especially television. If they are exposed to media reports or graphic images, try to be there with them so you can explain to them what they are seeing, hearing or reading. If you don’t, they could become confused and frightened.

We live in a country where thankfully, these incidents are rare, especially in schools, but unfortunately there will always be incidents like what happened in Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech and now Newtown, Connecticut.

Having an open dialogue with your children can help ease the immediate pain, and help avoid long term mental health issues that can result from such unimaginable crimes.

To view a video with more information, visit www.backushospital.org/multimedia