Words fail. How does a parent try to explain to a child what happened at the elementary school in Connecticut yesterday. The horrific massacre is every parent’s worst nightmare – unthinkable.
Unless your child has been exposed to this incident – by radio, TV, or internet, there is no reason to bring it up to him. The likelihood, however, is that he heard about it in school either in a classroom discussion or overheard other kids talking about it on the playground.
Begin by asking him what he heard versus shoving too much upsetting information into him. Begin by asking, “Did anything happen at school today that you want to talk about?” This open-ended question leaves the door wide open for your child to bring up anything he has on his mind.
If your child says, “Did you hear what happened at the school in Connecticut?” it’s best to explore what he knows. Ask him what he heard, read, or saw. Then you can start the conversation based on what he knows, answering his questions honestly, minimally, and be able to tweak and correct any misinformation to the best of your ability. The idea is to be truthful, yet not unnecessarily raise his anxiety. Say as little as possible and state the bare facts.
If he asks, “What happened?”, say “Some grown-ups and children were killed at a school far away from where we live.”
If your child asks “Why did he do that?” say, “He had a serious problem with his brain and thinking and he did a terrible thing. Just like people sometimes have problems with their bodies, like a hearing loss or a hand that doesn’t work, once in a long while someone has a severe problem with his brain. The guy who did the shooting had a big problem with his brain and he did a horrible, crazy thing. But, once in a rare while someone’s mind doesn’t let him know what’s right and what’s wrong. But, this is very, very rare.” If your child is older, 10 years and up, depending on his maturity level, encourage the conversation. Ask him what he thinks might have been going with someone who does something so horrific. Share the same facts about mental illness, and the rarity of the act. Not only will he share the burden of his fears with you, thereby lessening the weight on his shoulders, and you will be able to reassure him of the randomness of the act and how remote the likelihood of it happening again is. You might also consider mentioning how the media and internet bring terrible news instantly and relentlessly. Having it thrown at you constantly makes it even bigger in a child’s mind. Fears of all kinds may be generated in your child. Do not try to downplay his fears. Rather, acknowledge that you understand he is frightened. Reassure him over and over that you are all safe, that this was an unusual event. It takes people, including children, time to process events like the killings in Connecticut. Don’t be surprised if he continues to ask questions over and over. He is only trying to make sense of the senseless the best he can.
Be careful how you talk about the events when your child may be listening. Kids hear everything and they have laser-sharp radar that zones in on your affect.