How a psychologist explained Sandy Hook to his children

How a psychologist explained Sandy Hook to his children

The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut have been traumatizing for the entire nation. While we have unfortunately become used to hearing about school shootings and other public mass shootings in the U.S., the brutal murder of 20 innocent elementary school children (all ages 6 and 7) is just too much to bear.

In fact, the moment I saw the picture above, it was impossible to hold back the tears any longer because the image of the little boy with the blonde hair reminded me of my precious 7-year-old son.

In this day and age, I knew that he and his equally precious 8-year-old sister would probably hear of what happened next week in school and my wife and I decided that it would be best if they heard it from us first. This is because if they hear about what happened from their peers, children are prone to misinformation and exaggeration and I did not want them to be misinformed from the outset.  I also wanted to have some control over how and when the message was delivered.

As to the latter point, we had a family day planned with exciting activities scheduled that I knew would make the kids happy. I reasoned that it would be better to tell them the sad news first so that the good events of the day that were to follow would overshadow what I was about to tell them. After all, this is not the type of news one wants to deliver to a child at the end of the day or right before bedtime when they have a lot of time to dwell on it.

The way we have always raised our children is not to hide or shield them from the fact that we live in a dangerous world. They are aware that there are many nice people in the world but they also know that there are many “mean guys” out there who can do harm to them (which is why they know they should not go anywhere with strangers). We also talk to them and read books to them about dangerous things, places, and situations and how best to avoid or deal with such dangers.

So it was that context that allowed me to ease into the conversation somewhat. We brought the children into a comfortable room and we sat down together in close company. I reminded them about the discussions we have had about the world being a dangerous place sometimes and how there are mean guys around. They innocently looked at me and nodded their heads. I then told them that there was something bad that happened yesterday at a school that they may hear about on Monday and that it was best that they hear it from us first. They were told that the school is far away from where we live to make them feel safer. They were then told that there was a mean guy who went into a school with some guns and shot some adults and children and that some of these people died, including the principal. My guiding thought process was to explain the essential facts but not go into unnecessary detail.

After telling them such shocking news, I wanted to immediately counter this by letting them know something good, which is that the mean guy is dead and is not going to hurt them or anyone else anymore. Then came the first question, which was how did the mean guy die. My philosophy in responding was to tell the truth but try to keep it minimal. So my first response was simply that he was shot. The follow-up question was who shot him. The answer was that he shot himself. This is very strange to a young child and provoked a response that that is a very silly thing to do, which we all agreed with. Why would someone do that, my son asked. Again, to keep it simple for a 7-year-old, sometimes crazy people do crazy things that we would never do. While we don’t use the word crazy in clinical settings, you have to adjust the language when talking to children this young.

I then wanted to discuss another positive aspect of the tragedy, which is that there were teachers who saved many of the children’s lives by following proper lockdown drill procedures. My daughter immediately responded that she knows what a lockdown drill is and that they are scary. This reminded my son of the drill as well and they explained some of the things they have to do when one occurs. We explained why going to the corner or in a closet away from the door is the safe thing to do and they wound up having a better understanding of why they have to do these drills. They were reminded that if they have another lockdown drill in school that the teachers will clearly let them know that it is only a drill and not the real thing, so they are not too scared the next time it happens. But this real-life example of lives being saved helped to explain to them why practicing lockdown drills are so important. By practicing the drills, the teachers were much better prepared and lives were saved.

I then told them that I hoped one of the good things that will come out of something so sad is that our country finds a way to not make it so easy for mean guys to get guns. The hope here is that this would allow them to feel that something may happen in our society to make them feel safer. I sure hope this is not wishful thinking on my part because we cannot have another tragedy like this ever again. However, I could not tell them that there was no risk of this ever happening at their school. While I reminded them that dangerous situations can happen anywhere (even Dad’s work, Mom’s work, the mall, etc.) there were told that school shootings are very rare.  Nevertheless, they were told that it is very important for us to be aware of our surroundings, to be as careful as we can, and to try to make smart decisions to keep ourselves safe.

There were no further questions but they were told that their friends in school may tell them things about what happened that are not true and to check with mom and dad before believing it. We wanted to keep an open forum between us so they feel comfortable asking questions about difficult subjects. They readily agreed to check with us and to ask us questions.

The talk ended with a big family hug. We then proceeded to have a fun-filled family day and they did not bring the topic up once. We chose not to keep the TV news coverage on until they went to bed because we wanted to avoid chronic repeat exposure of this incident.

The difficult part about parenting is that there is no manual that exists on how to explain a tragedy like this to your children. I hope that example above is useful in that regard. Thank you for reading and give your children some extra big hugs.

Dominic A. Carone is a neuropsychologist who blogs at MedFriendly.com.

Image credit: Newtown Bee

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  • ValPas

    Very good approach to telling children such bad news!

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