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How Are You Talking to Your Children About the Newtown School Shooting?

A national expert offers advice to Chesterfield Township and New Baltimore parents who are trying to explain Friday's events to their children.

How do you talk with your children about the Sandy Hook school shooting without traumatizing or frightening them? That's the question Chesterfield ad New Baltimore parents are sure to be asking themselves and one another in the wake of Friday's tragedy.

What do you tell them? How much detail to you tell them? How do you help them make sense of what they may already have heard from friends or on television, or read via social media?

Lauren Hutchinson, MA, LMFT, is a nationally-recognized child and family therapist and parenting coach with a practice in Bellevue, WA. She says the first step is for parents is to “turn off the TV”.

“We don’t want to have the TV playing in the background all the time. It isn’t helpful and the news is traumatizing for kids to watch.”  

Here are other age-appropriate tips:

Ages 7 and younger: Hutchinson says, “you want to shield them from the media coverage completely and parents should not initiate a conversation about the event because kids this age cannot make sense of what has happened.”

“Kids don’t need to know the specific details of the event, like that the shooter was dressed all in black.” We forget that children, especially ages seven and younger, “hold tight to those kinds of negative images,” she says.

Ages 7 to 12: Hutchinson says, “you might provide them with basic information and reassure them.”

“The most important thing for kids this age is to know that they are safe. Talk about how parents and school teachers and staff work hard to protect kids and do tell them that the police 'got the bad guy,'” she says.

Hutchinson encoureages parents to “read the child’s cues and let them bring up what he or she wants to talk about.” 

Hutchinson says it is important for parents to “not invalidate feelings and remember kids will take their cue from your responses. While we may be feeling weepy or mesmerized by the TV coverage, we need to remember our kids are watching us.”  She says that like all parents, she is curious about many details of the case but will wait until after her kids are asleep to go online and read the news coverage.

Telling her own children: Hutchinson says she will approach the conversations differently with her two boys because of their ages.

“My 7th grader will have access to friends with smart phones and may have already heard about the event," she says. "With him I’m going to answer questions, not rehash the event, and respond to specific questions and concerns he has. With adolescents, there is an opportunity to talk in greater depth and have a conversation about what happened, what might make someone do something like this, etc.

With my 10-year-old, I will tell him what happened in brief, non-descriptive language. ‘Something really terrible happened at a school in Connecticut today. A gunman shot some students and adults. Many families and the community are heartbroken over the senselessness of this act,’" She says. "Then I am going to hone in on him and his response. This may be enough information for him; other kids may seek greater detail. Either is okay. Be honest and direct, without too many details.”

One of the most helpful things parents can do for their children, now and in the weeks ahead says Hutchinson, is to take action.

“(Children) need a meaningful way to express their emotions and process what happened.” For her own children, her family will be lighting a candle and saying a prayer for the victims and their families. “Rituals are important, especially during times like these, for comfort and healing.”

Other parent resources:

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics has web resources to help parents talk with their children.
  • Susan Stiffelman, a family therapist and author, offered these tips in her blog on Huffington Post.

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