Update Jan 7, 2013: Since the Newtown tragedy last month, more than 500 people have died from gun violence in the US. The article below has touched thousands of people all over the world because most of us share a great sense of grief about these heartbreaking events. This advice is relevant to helping children – and their adults – cope in the face of violence.
All of us at Kidpower, in each of our Centers around the world, join countless others in mourning the loss of the children and adults in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. We are asking hard questions that have complex answers.
And we are holding the children in our lives even more closely right now, cherishing them, and longing to give them a safer world in which to live.
While you may have already talked about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary with the children you care about, be aware that details are still unfolding on the news. Children may be getting new information from adults and other kids that they did not hear at first. They might hear scary details, often inaccurate, about what happened from other kids at school or other group activities.
Check in with kids when they come home from school or other group activities.
As children hear more details about this tragedy, they may feel worried and scared. Kids need our support and our love, not our own anxiety, grief, rage, and fear.
Here are a few steps you can take right away:
1. Shield children as best you can. Seeing and hearing about horrific events is traumatizing for people at any age. The response to traumatic events often continues long after the tragedy itself.
Try to protect children from hearing or seeing news reports about tragic events like this one. Turn off the radio in the car when experts are analyzing what happened even if your child seems to be involved doing something else in the back seat. Turn off your favorite news show on TV when your kids are in the room. Unless there is an immediate emergency where you must know what is happening for your family’s safety, getting the news can wait.
Interrupt friends, colleagues, parents, teachers, or other adults who start to express their feelings about what happened when children are around by saying, “Excuse me. Let’s make a different time to talk about this.” Then, change the subject.
2. Acknowledge children’s feelings without burdening them with your own. Let them tell you their feelings and respond with compassionate, acknowledging statements. “Yes, this is very sad. Yes, this is scary.”
How YOU act is going to make a big difference in the impact on your children. No matter how you feel inside, take a breath and decide to stay calm and hopeful in front of your kids, projecting the messages that they are safe and everything is in control. Get support for your own upset and overwhelmed feelings with other adults in settings away from your kids. Remember that your children can overhear your conversations even if you are on the telephone in another part of the room, and they seem to be playing and not paying attention.
Think carefully before bringing children to memorials and vigils where adults are actively grieving. For children who are very aware of what happened and feel sad, you can help them express their feelings through listening to them, encouraging them to make drawings about their feelings, and telling hopeful stories about dealing with different kinds of loss.
3. Answer questions in reassuring, age-appropriate ways. Rather than giving scary details about this tragedy, find out what your child has heard, listen to any concerns, and then provide just the information that your child needs to feel safe. For younger children, keep it very simple: “This almost never happens. The person who did this won’t be able to do it again. We are all working together to make sure your school is safe.”
Tell the truth but don’t put upsetting images in children’s heads that don’t need to be there. Don’t make untrue statements and promises you can’t keep, like, “This will never happen here!” Instead, provide reassuring explanations and realistic promises, “This is very rare. Lots of good people are working hard to make it even less likely to happen. And I will do everything in my power to keep you safe and to teach you how to keep yourself safe!”
The articles below provide answers to more complicated questions that might be troubling older children and their adults. Rather than imposing your own ideas, encourage older kids and teens tell you their ideas about what we each can do to make our world a safer place for everyone.
4. Give extra love and attention. Raise the issue if you think your child has heard about this tragedy and watch for signals that your child might be worrying and not telling you. Remember that kids, like many adults, often do not express upset feelings directly and might regress, be irritable, whiny, clingy, or demanding instead.
Even if a child doesn’t seem troubled, spend extra time with your kids over the next few days, having fun being together, listening to what they tell you, noticing any changes in behavior, and giving extra reassurance about any kind of worries, no matter how small.
Some children will not seem to be affected at first but will start to think about what happened and become increasingly upset about it over time. They might seem fine and then suddenly be afraid to go back to school after the holidays. Seek professional help if a child shows signs of lasting anxiety.
We urge you to share the following articles with any adults with children in their lives who may have worries and questions, to help young people regain their emotional safety in the wake of this tragedy.
We hope you will spread this information as widely as you can.
Our free online library of personal safety resources has these and other articles that may help adults who are faced with worried and scared kids. We hope to reach those parents with reassurance and advice on how to minimize the trauma for children and help them go back to school feeling safe.
The loss of the children and adults killed in Newtown is a terrible tragedy. Together, we can take action to reduce additional trauma resulting from this horrific event.
On behalf of everyone at all our Kidpower Centers around the world, I thank you for your commitment to safety.
With deep sadness, love, and determination,
Irene van der Zande, Kidpower International Executive Director and Founder
Kidpower expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Recent publications include the Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, the Kidpower Safety Comic Series, and Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe. Many families, schools, and youth organizations use Kidpower’s positive and practical curriculum for their bullying, child abuse and violence prevention training programs. Kidpower workshops, K-12 safety curriculum, books, videos and other services have helped to protect more than 2 million young people from abuse, bullying, and other violence since 1989. www.kidpower.org