In the wake of the terrible massacre in Newtown, CT last Friday, parents are groping for the right words to use when they discuss this horrible event with their children. Everyone is trying to make sense of this tragedy. Like all of us, the emotions that our kids are feeling are a mixture of fear, anger, grief, sadness, and empathy. How can we help young people during the upcoming months? What should parents say about events that they cannot comprehend themselves?
I suggest that listening is more important than talking. Start by providing opportunities for your children to talk about the events of last week. If they are school age or older, they have undoubtedly heard something about what happened. Make sure that what they have heard is accurate and fits with the facts we know. More important, listen to the emotional content they use to describe the events. If anger is the theme, listen and explore that with them without judging or preaching. If sadness is what your child expresses, find out what else makes him or her sad, and explore that. Should empathy be what a child feels, help him or her show concern by writing a letter to the families of the slain children or by raising money for these families.
I suspect that most children are feeling fearful and vulnerable, especially when going to school. They are fearful for their own safety as well as for the safety of their parents. Listen, reassure, reassure, and reassure some more. After 31 years practicing pediatrics, one of my core beliefs about children is that if you treat children with respect and dignity, most of them will respond with growth. Acknowledgment, validation and reassurance are the tools we have to respond to our children in situations such as this. Time, love, acceptance and understanding can heal a lot of hurt; this is true for our children as well as their parents.
Some children are traumatized by talk of violence. Should your child react in extreme ways—for example, by becoming excessively fearful—talk to your pediatrician, clergy, and/or teachers: they can provide comfort, support, and guidance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
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