The tragic events at the Sandy Hook elementary school have many parents searching for ways to explain the massacre to their children and prevent them from being paralyzed by anxiety and dread.
Here are 10 steps parents can take to help their children come to terms with feelings of shock and uncertainty while reassuring them everything is being done to protect their safety.
1. The parent role is the role of being the protector. Be strong yourself during this difficult time. Be patient and an effective listener.
2. By being an able container for all your child’s emotions you will foster the feeling of security.
3. For children below seven or eight years of age and depending on their maturity level, shield them completely from broadcast, print and online news as media reports may cause trauma through repeated exposure to the event. If you live
outside the Newtown area and have
strong reason to believe your child has not heard about the event, don’t
mention it to them.
4. Speak to older children about the incident and help them understand that there are implied dangers inherent to life but as a parent you are taking all steps to keep them safe from imminent dangers. Reassure them that schools do have safety measures in place.
5. Explain to them that there is no current external threat to their safety. The person responsible for the shooting is dead. Be aware that in the short term children might begin to perceive an illogical threat to their security.
6. Expect emotional reactions like sadness, fear, anger and anxiety to occur in both yourself and your child. Seek support in school counselors, friends and family if needed.
7. Children express their stress in two ways: either by internalizing or or externalizing. In other words, they either stuff down emotions or act out. If you find your child is withdrawn, clingy, sad and not talking then they have internalized their feelings of stress. If your child is behaving aggressively or verbally lashing out then they have eternalized their feelings of stress.
8. Tailor your message depending on your child’s temperament, developmental age and understanding capacities.
9. The closer you are to the epicenter of this event and the people involved in it the more likely your child might develop symptoms of acute stress. This could manifest in the form of anxiety, refusal to go to school, irritability, insomnia, hyperviglence, jumpiness, restlessness, nightmares, crying spells and tantrums.
10. If these symptoms worsen and persist for weeks or even months or interfere with your child’s functioning, seek the help of a professional.
As a parent, you likely need some reassurance too, so be sure you that you are as strong as possible so that you can give your children the attention and affection they need now and in the future.
Preetham Grandhi MD