EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 14, 2012

EXTRA: How to talk to your kids about shooting

By Dustin Luca
dluca@eagletribune.com

---- — ANDOVER — In a letter to the community, Andover Public Schools Superintendent Marinel McGrath has advised parents to "protect your young children from repeated viewings and auditory exposure to news accounts" of today's elementary school shooting as new information becomes available.

In a two-page letter to parents and community partners, McGrath cautioned that "young children will be particularly vulnerable, as other young children have reportedly been impacted by this tragedy."

"We are all in this together; loving and caring for the children of this community," she wrote. "For all of us as adults, I trust we will find a way to draw reassurance and comfort from each other and the affirming messages of this holiday season. The bad news is not all of the news, and we have so much to be thankful for."

When talking about the incident with children tonight, Janet Yedniak, director of Social Workers, has the following advice:

YOUNG CHILDREN

All young children are negatively impacted by multiple viewings of scary events, or by relentless news coverage of those events. With young children, it is usually most helpful to find out what their questions are, rather than trying to anticipate yourself what it is that they need to know.

If they do ask, it would be helpful to downplay the setting that this event happened in, and simply say that someone hurt some people in another place, and that everyone feels sad for the people who were hurt.

Depending on what your child has heard, you may need to gradually step out more information, and it certainly is helpful to respond truthfully to your child’s questions, but remember that you do not have to give more information than your child is asking for.

Emphasize that they are safe and that you love them. If they are aware that the shooting took place in a school, remind them that we have all kinds of ways that we all work to keep our school buildings safe, including locks on the doors, and adults who are there to take care of us.

It’s fine to tell them you don’t know, if they ask you questions about why this happened, or what was wrong with the person who did the bad thing. It is helpful to remember that you may have different feelings about, or interest in, this event, than your children do.

Try to keep your own feelings distinct from your child’s, as they may not be interested in a lengthy conversation about this, and will be satisfied with a brief reassurance.

It is in the nature of childhood that youngsters often choose to think about other things when they are overwhelmed by a piece of information, and may be happy to talk about something else or engage in some activity that they find calming or enjoyable.

If your individual child persists in asking questions, try to ascertain what it is that they are really wondering about. If their primary fear is that something like this might happen to them or someone that they know, you could ask them, “If you were in that situation, what do you think you might do to keep yourself safe?” If your child over the next several days seems particularly troubled or persists in questioning you about it, we would encourage you to contact your child’s teacher and let them know. You also may want to contact your school’s school social worker if you need specific advice for your child.

OLDER CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS

With older children, events in the news often represent teachable moments for families. If you feel that your individual child would appreciate this conversation, it is fine to ask them whether there have been conversations among their friends about this tragedy.

What does everyone think about this? Asking what their friends think is often a helpful conversation starter with adolescents. This is a good opportunity to model your own values in processing this incredibly sad event.

Since we are always trying to maximize the development of empathy in our young people, it is helpful to keep the focus on the people who were negatively impacted by this senseless violence. If your youngster wants to focus on the perpetrator of the violence, you may want to redirect the conversation to the families who were affected by the violence.

It is important to recognize that we really do not know what motivated this act, and to acknowledge with our older children that people always struggle to understand why bad things happen in the world.

As parents, we can deliver a helpful and empowering message to our youngsters that as individuals, we can try to balance out the negative things that happen in the world by being forces for good, both in our communities and in the world at large.

Similarly, while it is human nature to try to impose some sense on the event through speculation about the perpetrator, you can caution your youngster that the really important thing here is that some families who were impacted are in a tremendous amount of pain right now, and that they all have our sympathy.

As with younger children, it is helpful to ask questions to ascertain what they are thinking about, what their questions are, and how do they feel affected by this? If you have concerns about your own individual child, we would encourage you to call, at the middle school, one of the school social workers, or at the high school, your child’s guidance counselor or social worker.