Healing after Tragedy

Families across the nation have spent the past several days reeling from the shock of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. And in the midst of their own grief, fear, and confusion, parents wonder how to process a tragedy like this with their own children. Below are some practical tips for parents on how to address this tragedy with their children, while taking steps to care for their own emotional well-being.

Dr. Susy Francis discusses practical tips for parents on how to address the tragedy with their families, as well as the role of mental health in the shooting, on Windy City Live.

Tips for Talking to Kids about the Shooting

Find out what your child already knows. Start by asking what your child/teen already has heard about the events from the media and from friends. Listen carefully; try to figure out what he or she knows or believes. As your child explains, listen for misinformation, misconceptions, and underlying fears or concerns. Especially for young children, it is important not to add details to what they know already, while making sure that you dispel any potential misconceptions they have expressed.

Make your child feel safe. Your child/teen may have some difficult questions about the incident. For example, she may ask if it is possible that it could happen at their school; she is probably really asking whether it is “likely.” Your child may also resist the idea of going to school, as the safety of that place has been compromised in their mind. Dr. Keith Ablow provides some great techniques for how to reassure children of their safety in this article.

Limit media exposure. Limit your child’s exposure to media images and sounds of the shooting, and do not allow your very young children to see or hear any TV/radio shooting-related messages. Even if they appear to be engrossed in play, children often are aware of what you are watching on TV or listening to on the radio. What may not be upsetting to an adult may be very upsetting and confusing for a child. Limit your own exposure as well. Adults may become more distressed with nonstop exposure to media coverage of this shooting. If your child has watched coverage, take a minute to turn off the television and ask the child about what they think about what was seen. This also gives you an opportunity to discuss the event and gently correct misconceptions.

Understand what reactions are common, and which are not.  In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, children may have more problems paying attention and concentrating. They may become more irritable or defiant. Children and even teens may have trouble separating from caregivers, wanting to stay at home or close by them. It’s common for young people to feel anxious about what has happened, what may happen in the future, and how it will impact their lives. Their sleep and appetite routines may change. 

If behaviors listed above become more pronounced or do not lessen within a few weeks, you should consider seeking help for your child from a mental health professional. Children have an amazing ability to "bounce back" from traumatic events, and can be assisted in that process by working with a counselor. 

Additional Resources

Managing Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting

An excellent article from the American Psychological Association geared towards any individual affected by the shooting.

Controlling Your Fears, Calming Theirs
An article from the Today show that gives basic principles for parents dealing with their own emotions, while caring for the emotions of their children.

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