The events of the past week in Connecticut hopefully have given us all pause to appreciate the fragileness and uncertainty of life. We have all cried with heartache for the parents who have lost children. We have honored the adults that gave their lives to protect the students in their charge. We have all stood with outrage at the senselessness and brutality of this crime. As time passes, the families of Newtown will begin to heal — but they, like all of us, will never forget.
The brutal massacre in Newtown has brought many issues to light. In the days to come there will be the obvious political discussions concerning gun control — however, politicizing this tragedy is not my purpose in this blog. Beyond dealing with my own anger and feelings of sorrow, one of the most difficult things that I have had to do is to figure out how to talk with my daughter about the Newtown school shootings. Children of all ages throughout our country have been or will be affected by this terrible occurrence. In order to process the tragedy, we must learn how to discuss the events with each other and with our children.
As described in the New York Times, finding the right words for victims and their families is often difficult. Even clergy, who are regularly faced with providing consolation to those who suffer have struggled with the Newtown tragedy. There is much debate by parents and psychologists as to how best deal with the news. Some, like author KJ Dell’Antonia in her New York Times blog, suggest that we many not need to talk to younger children about the tragedy at all. Rather, she advocates the practice of finding out just “how much” they actually know about the news and reacting to that. For children who do know something about the events, Ms Dell’Antonia suggests the concept of pairing a “brave thought with a worried thought.”
That way when the worried thoughts enter a child’s consciousness, the brave thought will follow close behind. Often, we subconsciously want to talk to our children about tragedy, more for ourselves than for them. As parents, we have a need to protect and to nurture. Talking about the events helps us process and helps us feel that in some way, we have made our children safer.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents use available resources to talk to their children about the Newtown shootings. However, limiting media exposure and adult conversations is also highly recommended. Gauging the child’s level of interest and anxiety concerning the tragedy is the key to determining how much to share. Most experts suggest that the best way to discuss a traumatic event is to listen first. Reassure your children that even though bad things can happen, their world is still a relatively safe place. Provide love and support. Acknowledge their fears and help them know how much they are loved and cared for by family, friends, and teachers.
The AAP does warn against changing routines — children are creatures of habit and when the normal daily processes are disrupted, anxiety can be created. For older children who struggle to cope, psychologists suggest that engaging in projects such as fundraising for relief funds, writing letter to affected communities or expressing their feelings through art or writing can often help children process sadness and grief. Experts warn however, that if a parent is stressed and upset about the event, the time for discussion with the child should be delayed.
The tragedy of Newtown, CT will not pass quickly. We can honor the victims of the massacre by engaging in conversation — with each other, and with our kids. Listen to your children, help them cope. Bond tighter as families. Take advantage of every moment together. As we enter this time of holiday celebrations, feasting and family togetherness, focus on the joy of the human experience, not the hassle of the lines at the mall or the annoying family visitors who never know when to leave. Treasure the preciousness of time — that is the best way we can honor the victims, their families and the citizens of Newtown, CT.
Kevin R. Campbell is a cardiac electrophysiologist who blogs at his self-titled site, Dr. Kevin R. Campbell, MD.