Tips for Talking with Children about Newtown School Shooting

Wayland Superintendent Paul Stein circulated a document drafted by professionals with Wayland's community mental health agency, The Human Relations Service.

Wayland Superintendent Paul Stein let parents know this afternoon that Wayland Public Schools will be available to help parents in any possible way as they help their children cope with the tragic shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

Stein also circulated a document written by Robert Evans, Ed.D. and Mark Kline, Psy.D. from The Human Relations Service that provides some guidance in how to help children respond to the tragedy.

The text of that document is below:

Unbelievably, there has been yet another school shooting, this time with awful carnage, 20 students and 6 teachers dead. And barely two hours from Boston. We have had too many of these in America. And when it happens not just again but so nearby, our sense of fragility looms even larger. We're reminded that none of us can entirely guarantee our own safety or that of our children, our teachers, our colleagues and friends.

There is no technology or template for coping with this kind of event. We feel shock and disbelief, sorrow for the victims, anger at its unfairness, despair that guns remain so available to those who commit these atrocities. And most of us think immediately about how to be helpful to our children.

This, too, can seem difficult. We worry about saying too much or too little, about not having enough information, about saying the wrong thing. Fortunately, the things that have been helpful in past tragedies that have struck our schools and communities are likely to be helpful again. Though there is no perfect approach, these four points that can help when talking with children.

  1. Don't over-assume what the events means to them. It is common for an adult to feel, "If I'm this upset, they must be even more so." But this is by no means always true. Students react differently depending on their closeness to the situation, their own personalities, and so on. Some may be deeply moved, others less so. Some may have many questions, others fewer. Not all will be intensely affected. Showing little reaction does not automatically mean a student is hiding or denying his or her feelings. At the same time, a few students who have little immediate reaction may become upset later on, even in a way that doesn't make sense to them. There is no universal timetable.
  2. Children and adolescents are remarkably resilient. They may become quite upset, but given a chance to express what they feel, most usually resume their normal lives-and often do so more rapidly than we adults. There is reason to worry about students who show sustained-not temporary-changes in their mood and behavior. In such cases, it is good to consult a school counselor or other professional. But most students do not benefit from extensive, probing questioning about their reactions. They do profit from simple, direct information and from parents and teachers being available to respond to their questions and to listen when they themselves want to talk.
  3. If you receive difficult questions it can be useful to understand these before answering them. Often a question is spurred by a feeling. Rather than plunging into an immediate answer, it can be helpful to learn what motivates the question by asking, "What made you think of that?" or "Can you tell me what you were thinking about?" Once you know the source of the question, it is easier to answer effectively.
  4. There may be questions you cannot answer, which can make you feel inadequate. But all of us are typically more comforted by straight talk than by false assurances. Rather than inventing a response, it can be much more helpful to say, "I don't know," and to ask, "What have you heard?" or, "Did you have an idea about that?" And don't worry if, in responding, you become emotional a time or two. It is alright for students to know that adults are moved by losses.

Above all, coping with such an awful event is not primarily a matter of technique, not something best handled by a particular set of tactics that deviate sharply from one's familiar patterns of communication. The regular routines of both school and family life are, all by themselves, a source of comforting continuity and assurance. Adults will rarely go wrong by relying on what is most basic between them and their children-caring and connection. At these times, your presence-your simply being with them, their knowing that you are available-can be just what they need.  

Drs. Evans and Kline are psychologists and, respectively, the Executive Director and Clinical Director of The Human Relations Service (HRS), Wayland's community mental health agency. Residents with questions can reach HRS at 781-235-4950.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »