Comforting kids
after a tragedy

Our hearts break every time we think about the families in Newtown, Connecticut, and how they’re struggling to cope with the horror of last Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook School. In the midst of our sadness, we’re faced with needing to respond to our own kids’ queries about the attack, often clueless as to how much, or how little to say. My three elementary-aged kids want some details, for example: How many guns did the shooter have? How did he get in if the doors were locked? Did the kids see blood? Deep breath. Thankfully, Nancy Berns, associate professor of sociology at Drake University, an expert in grief, death and violence and author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, stepped in to give us all guidance.


SheKnows: How can parents help their kids cope with the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut?

Nancy Berns: Try to answer questions appropriate for their age and reassure them as often as they need it. Be willing to take the time to listen and ask questions over days, weeks and months.

  • Hug your children. Hold them if they are seeking the closeness. Don’t rush them as they are processing their own feelings.
  • Limit their exposure to media if possible, including news reports and images. Be careful about how much they overhear you talking to others or listening to news. Children pick up more than you realize.
  • Keep your kids’ routines as normal as possible. This will help give them a sense of security.
  • If your family has a religious faith, you can pray with your children. Encourage them to pray for others — focusing on helping someone can give them hope.
  • Spend time playing, reading and doing other activities together.

Take it slow

SK: What are some specific things parents can say to help kids feel safe at school? And what shouldn't you say or do?

NB: Even if children are not asking about the shooting, they may be hearing other people talk about it. So you want to check in with them at different times to see if they have questions or concerns. By asking, you give them permission to talk about it. They may not know if it’s OK to discuss it since they’ll likely pick up fear and anxiety as they hear other people talk. If you don’t talk about it with them, they may get even more scared. You can start with a general statement like, “Something sad happened last week. Have you heard anyone talking about it?” And then go slowly from there.

Some children don’t say a lot when they’re upset. You can ask some direct questions. "Are you sad? Are you angry?" Even if they don’t answer, you can reassure them that it is all right to be sad or angry or confused. Let them know it’s all right to ask questions. You can tell them you’re sad, too, so that they don’t feel alone. But don’t lean on your kids for your own emotional support.

Be their safe place

SK: When your kids want to know details about the shootings should parents give honest answers?

NB: Each child may respond differently to this kind of news. You want to be honest with children and also age-appropriate. If children are old enough to be getting news from the internet and social media, you want to provide information so you can help them think through the details.

"You can reassure them that it is all right to be sad."

For younger children, answer their questions but keep the details limited and vague. If they continue to ask questions, try to answer because there is a need there for something. Depending on the age of the child, you have to discern how much detail is too much. If they are asking questions that you are uncomfortable answering, gently ask them why they are wondering. You can also ask what they’ve already heard to find out what images might be in their head. Keep the lines of communication open and let them see you as a safe place to express concerns.

Too young to understand?

SK: Should parents expect their kids to grieve and talk a lot about death?

NB: While researching my book, Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, I found that some similarities that children have in grieving, differ from many adults. Kids can switch their attention and emotions quickly. Children may hear about a loss, cry and be upset one moment, and then they go play and laugh. It’s important not to assume that this quick change means that the shooting isn’t bothering them. They may come back to it later in ways we don't always pick up on.

Adults may assume kids are fine after a death, thinking that “They’re too young to understand” and then the adults may be reluctant to bring up the tragedy. But when no one else is talking with a child about it, he or she may feel alone with the confusing feelings or start to think he shouldn't talk about it.

Children are likely to be sad, scared and confused and wonder if the same thing can happen to them or their friends and family. Reassure them that you are watching out for them and that their school is safe. Hug them and tell them you love them.

Hey, Moms

How are you comforting your kids after the Newtown school shooting? Share your thoughts and stories in Comments below.

Read more expert parenting advice

Parenting Guru: Do you blow off your kids?
Parenting Guru: Can your kids relate cross-culturally?

Parenting Guru: The benefits of emotion coaching

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