As news outlets fill with descriptions of today's mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut, parents across the country may be wondering how to help their children handle the tragic news.
Victor Carrion, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, studies the effect of childhood trauma. Last year, I interviewed him for a story describing how to talk to children about disasters reported in the news. Although his advice was not given with this specific tragedy in mind, much of it applies to this situation. Here are a few of his suggestions, adapted from the earlier story:
- Kids need information tailored to their age and comprehension level. A preschooler can handle less detail than a teenager, for instance, and children of different ages process their reactions to bad news differently. Playing games or drawing pictures about the news is the best approach for the very young, while engaging in conversation is appropriate for older kids.
- It’s important for children to understand that fear is a normal response to these situations. But children should not be put in the position of helping parents handle their own fears. It is the parent’s or caregiver’s job to help children feel safe.
- It’s appropriate to limit children’s exposure to news reports, while recognizing that older kids may come across these on their own and want to discuss them.
- Parents should be alert for behavior changes that signal distress, such as increased clinginess in a preschooler, complaints of headaches or stomach aches in a youngster or withdrawal in a teenager. These behaviors are often a clue that a child needs help.