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Expert: Talking to Children About the Connecticut School Shooting

Released: 12/14/2012 4:00 PM EST
Source Newsroom: University of Vermont
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Newswise — Due to the recent tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., parents and teachers may be faced with the challenge of discussing this difficult subject with young children.

"These discussions are important, and there are no 'right' or 'wrong' ways to talk with children about such traumatic events,." says David Fassler, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and a practicing child and adolscent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt.

Dr. Fassler offers the following suggestions for these discussions:

1) Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions. It's best not to force children to talk about things unless and until they're ready.

2) Give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you're “making things up.” It may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future.

3) Use words and concepts children can understand. Gear your explanations to the child's age, language, and developmental level, and be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard for them to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance.

4) Acknowledge and validate the child's thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate.
Remember that children tend to personalize situations; they may worry about their own safety or the safety of friends or siblings when going to school.

5) Let children know that lots of people are helping the families affected by the recent shooting.

6) Children learn from watching their parents. They are very interested in how you respond to local and national events. They also learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.

7) Don't let children watch too much news coverage with frightening images. The repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing. Children who have experienced trauma or losses in the past are particularly vulnerable to prolonged or intense reactions to news or images of violent incidents. These children may need extra support and attention.

8) Make sure that children who are preoccupied with ongoing questions or concerns about safety get evaluated by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Other signs that a child may need additional help include sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts or worries, or recurring fears about death, leaving parents, or going to school. If these behaviors persist, ask your child's pediatrician, family physician, or school counselor to help arrange an appropriate referral.

9) Although parents may follow the news with close scrutiny, most children just want to be children. They may not want to think about or discuss violent events. They'd rather play ball, climb trees, or ride bikes.

10) Senseless, violent crime is not easy for anyone to comprehend or accept. Understandably, some young children may feel frightened or confused. As parents, teachers and caring adults, we can best help by listening and responding in an honest, consistent, and supportive manner.

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