In the wake of the deeply disturbing events in Connecticut on Friday, many of you may be wondering about the best way to talk to your kids about something so violent and heinous. Many of us are having a difficult enough time making sense of this for ourselves. How much is too much for kids to know? When to speak up? How to be open so they know they can talk to you? Experts on school safety point to several strategies as the best way to handle these situations.
Dr. Alan Kazdin, professor of child psychology at Yale University, offers some tips for parents that I think are particularly useful.
- First, don’t over-talk these events. It’s important to let your kids know they can talk to you, but that does not mean you have to over-stress the issue of school safety or the tragic nature of what has occurred. Be open, don’t lie or withhold information that your children request—speak simply and honestly. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t know” in response to difficult questions they may have.
- Second, shield them from the media. I was so glad to read that Dr. Kazdin is stressing this point. Just this morning, my husband turned on an educational kids show featuring wild animals, one he likes to watch with our little boy. This was on one of the major networks, and sure enough, during the first break, commercials for the evening news set to cover the latest unfolding details of the shooting aired. Images of distraught, frightened, and grief-stricken parents flashed across the screen, along with pictures of SWAT team members with weapons poised as they attempted to secure the school. This is not the way to spark a dialogue with children, and it’s not helpful for kids to see over and over again. Turn off the TV and take a walk, or play a game, or listen to some music together while you do some kind of arts/crafts activity. Wait for their questions, and watch for signs of stress or anxiety like nightmares, excessive fears over everyday events, or school avoidance behaviors.
- And lastly, and somewhat obviously, Dr. Kazdin urges parents to be reassuring to their children—no amount of reminders that they are safe and loved is too much if they are asking for it (or showing through their behavior that they need it by seeking closeness to you, seeming particularly sensitive or tearful, or avoiding separation situations). If your child asks questions about the safety of their own school, it’s key to reassure them that things like this are extremely rare. Using simple language, remind them that this has never happened at their school, it never happened at your school, and that everyone is safe now (“They know who did this and he can’t hurt anybody anymore”). You might remind them that the school works very hard to keep them safe, and that even moms and dads have to go by the office and let the people in charge know they are visiting the campus so they know everyone who comes into their school is okay.
And give them extra hugs, smiles, and cuddles—this is soothing not just to them, but to you as well as a parent. It is hard not to think about the totality and finality of the grief facing the parents of that small Connecticut town. There is little to do to help those directly impacted. But what you can do is show extra kindness to yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to turn off the news, set down the smartphone, and give yourself some protection from the deluge of horrific details. Hug your little ones and loved ones extra tight. Leave a note of thanks to a colleague who makes your work day easier. Hold the door open for someone. Wave that car over into your lane as you sit parked in rush hour traffic. It’s not much, but it’s something, and you might be surprised by the effects. It’s the little things, sparked out of gratitude and kindness, that can suddenly make the world seem a little smaller, a little kinder, and somehow, a little bit safer for us all.