How to talk to your kids about this tragedy
It’s yet another conversation about random mass violence at a school in America that local parents and teachers didn’t expect to have, but now will have to endure yet again in shock and sadness.
On Friday at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., more than 600 miles from High Point, a 20-year-old gunman walked into the classroom of his mother, a teacher, and began firing two handguns. Within moments, the shooter killed children and adults in one of the most gruesome outbreaks of mass violence in modern American history.
TV and Internet news reports of the massacre quickly followed, cascading across television screens, computer monitors, tablets and smart phones. The coverage exposed local men and women — as well as children and teenagers — to shocking, disturbing images of and boys and girls in Connecticut fleeing from what should be a place of refuge – an elementary school.
Local parents need to be careful about allowing their children — especially boys and girls of elementary school age and in early middle school — to see images of the carnage.
“Parents need to be very cautious about how much they do expose their children to the coverage. The news coverage is probably going to be pretty graphic, and young children don’t have a way of processing that the way adults do,” said Amber Kelley, a licensed professional counselor in private practice in High Point.
On the other hand, Kelley said parents shouldn’t ignore or dismiss their children if they ask about the tragedy. Mothers and fathers should reassure their children that they are in a safe place.
If a child isn’t discussing the tragedy, a parent may want to bring it up to make sure their son or daughter isn’t internalizing the shock.
“You don’t have to give graphic details, but you may say, ‘Let’s talk about this. Know that I’m here and you can talk about it.’ Children are going to hear about it from friends, in school or on the playground. They need to be able to talk about that with someone who’s close to them, who can understand and listen to their concerns and offer reassurance,” said Kelley, who has an expertise as a disaster and trauma response mental health specialist.
The answers that parents provide to children who ask questions about the violence will vary with their age and level of maturity.
“It depends on the developmental level of the child. Older children will be able to handle more information than an elementary age child,” Kelley said.
Kelley can relate to the sobering dilemma of how to talk about tragic violence with boys and girls on a professional and personal level — she’s a mother of three children.
The Guilford County Schools recognized the tragedy Friday, expressing their grief for the children, teachers and administrators in Connecticut.
“At GCS, like schools and school districts across the nation, we make every effort to keep our students safe. Security plans and measures are important, and we make sure we have those in place. We also work closely with local law enforcement and the county emergency management office,” said Nora Carr, chief of staff for the school system.
Kelley acknowledges that parents face an inherently uncomfortable conversation trying to explain to their children what may seem incomprehensible even to adults.
“But the reality of the world we live in today is things like this happen,” she said. “It has happened before, it’s likely to happen again at some point. And we don’t know when or where.”
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Tips for parents on what to watch for in their children that may indicate a troubling response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre Friday in Newtown, Conn.:
Change in sleep patterns, such as nightmares or disturbances that awaken a child at atypical times
Loss of appetite or changes in eating routines
Unexplained changes in behavior, such as a child becoming more distracted or not as interested in school
Children who inexplicably isolate themselves from friends