As the nation watches details emerge on the elementary school shooting in Connecticut, children will likely have questions for their parents and other adults about something so frightening. Child psychologist Anne Jacobs offers advice for how to help children of all ages deal with the tragedy. Jacobs has a private practice in Edmond and teaches a class at Southern Nazarene University about counseling children and adolescents. She has also worked with the Terrorism and Disaster Center of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Q: How can something like the school shooting in Connecticut affect children as far away as Oklahoma?
A: Indirect exposure to traumatic events, such as the Connecticut school shooting, can occur through the media. When children watch television stories or access information online about a tragedy, it can make them feel unsafe, even if that event happened far, far away. This media exposure can affect adults as well, and children can be very sensitive to how their caregivers are feeling.
Q: What kinds of questions can parents expect from their children in the coming days?
A: Children's questions may range from concrete questions about the details of the tragedy to more difficult questions regarding why horrible things like this happen. Many children who have heard about the shooting, whether they ask it directly or not, may wonder about their own safety. Will something like this happen at my school?
Q: How can you respond to those questions for younger children?
A: Before answering children's questions, it is good to do a bit of questioning yourself to find out what they know or think they know about the shooting. This approach allows you to correct any rumors or misconceptions. Give your answers in easy-to-understand language without a lot of elaboration. Let your children lead the discussion so you can answer only what they really want to know and not overwhelm them with in-depth information. Answer each question simply, then wait to see what they want to know next. Sometimes when young children ask questions, we assume they want to know more details than they actually do.
Q: What about for teens?
A: With teens, again I would let them lead the conversation and find out what they have heard first. For teenagers who are hesitant about opening up, asking what other kids at school are saying about the shooting may be an easy way to spark the conversation. Parents are an important sounding board for their teenagers' thoughts and feelings about these events.
Q: Should you shield your children from news like this or let them know what's happening?
A: Parents serve as the protective shield between their children and the world. The way we use that role changes as our children develop. For very young children, I would generally keep them from watching television or videos related to the tragedy. Parents can answer their questions and help translate the main points for them. It is very difficult to keep older children and teenagers away from news stories, but that does not mean that you give them free reign on their own. Try to limit their exposure to scary or graphic scenes or written descriptions of the shooting and help them discuss and cope with what they do take in. Be mindful of any news coverage that you are watching or listening to in your children's presence, as well. Sometimes it's easy to forget there may be little ears lurking nearby.
Q: What can parents do to help their children the most right now?
A: There are a couple of things you can do to help your children cope with hearing about this tragedy. First, be that protective shield and limit their exposure to media stories about the shooting. For teenagers, help them process what they are hearing, seeing and reading. Second, reassure your children and teens of the steps you and their school have taken to help them be safe. You can have your children describe their schools' safety drills as a way to remind them that adults around them are planning for their safety. Obviously, we cannot prevent every tragedy, but it helps children to know that we can be better prepared.