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Talking to Kids (or NOT) About What Happened in Connecticut

by on Dec.15, 2012, under Adolescents, Communication, Environmental influences, Parent modeling, Parenting, Safety, School, Sensitive Topics

There are no good words to explain to anyone—let alone to kids—what happened at the elementary school in Connecticut this morning. The horrific incident is every parent’s worst nightmare, unfathomable and unspeakable. The air is heavy with the horror. The president of our country wept during his speech to the nation.

This is one of those times when parents’ confidence disappears; they are rendered tongue-tied. How do you explain that twenty young children (and some grown-ups) were killed while they were at school?

Unless your child has been exposed to this incident–by radio, TV, internet or overhearing your loose talk—there is absolutely no reason to bring it up to him.  Period.

But if you are unsure, as many will be, about whether your child has heard anything about the incident, you can ask, “Did anything happen (at school) today that you want to talk about?” This question leaves a wide berth for your child to bring up anything he may be thinking.

If your child exclaims, “Did you hear what happened at the school in Connecticut?” you need to find out what he knows.  Ask him to share what he heard.  Then you can begin your conversation based on what he knows, answering his questions honestly, minimally, and be able to correct any misinformation to the best of your ability.

Here are some possible scripts or starting points for talking with your child about the tragedy.

What happened?

Say as little as possible and state the bare facts:

Some grown-ups and children were killed at a school. That is as much as I know.

 Who did it?

 I only know that he was a man named Adam.

 Why did he do that?

After you share the correct information, and your child asks, “Why did he do that?” you can explain:

No one knows why he did it. We only know that he was not well. He had a serious problem with his thinking. He was sick in his mind, and he did a terrible thing.

Just like people sometimes have problems with their bodies, like a hearing impairment or a leg that doesn’t work, for example, 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. It didn’t work properly, and he did a horrible, crazy thing.  He could not think right.

You will need to add for reassurance:

Most people’s brains work right. But once in a long long while someone’s mind doesn’t tell him what is and isn’t okay to do. He doesn’t know right from wrong, and he can’t stop himself from doing crazy things.  But this is very very rare; it doesn’t happen very often at all.

For older children:

If your older child, 10 years and older, comes to you wanting to talk about it,  depending upon his maturity, encourage the conversation. Ask him what he thinks might have been going on with someone who does something so horrific. Then share the same observations about mental illness, and the rarity of the act.  Not only will he share the burden of his fears with you, thereby lessening his load, but 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 discuss how the media and internet bring terrible news instantly and relentlessly.  While it is an unfathomable act, having it thrown into your consciousness makes it even bigger.

Beware! Your children are listening.

My colleague shared that, while all media was shut down in her house during 911, her 5 year old son, never having been to New York, built “the twin towers” with his blocks in his playroom. Children hear, see, feel, and absorb what goes on around them. You may not think you child is listening, but he hears you.

Mind your affect.

It is close to impossible not to have been horror stricken by this event.  But it is critical that you modulate and take care of your own feelings.  Children read and absorb their parents’ feelings.  No need to add your worries to your child’s.  And be sure to seek the help of a mental health professional if you need help in managing your anxiety.

Children’s fears.

Fears of all kinds may be generated in the child who learns of this event. Do not downplay his fears. Rather, acknowledge that you understand that he is frightened.  You will need to reassure him over and over that you are all safe, that this was an unusual event. You may need to remind him of all the safety precautions that are in place, of all the people whose job it is to keep us safe—police, firefighters, security people, the TSA.  Car alarms, house alarms, seat belts are just a few of the ways that we are safe every single day. However, if after a few weeks your child’s fears are getting in the way of his functioning, you should contact a mental health professional.

 Tragedy’s shelf life.

It takes all people, including children, time to process events like the killings in Connecticut. Don’t be surprised if your child continues to ask questions, even the same ones, over and over. He is only trying to make sense and process what has happened the best he can.


In times of tragedy, you need to circle the wagons, stay close, and be the family safety net your child needs you to be.


17 Comments for this entry

  • Amy L

    With a tear rolling down my face, I read your well-articulated words. Thank you for always being a much needed resource.

  • Harley Jane

    Thank you, Betsy. When I went to pick up my kids from school today, I turned off the radio and told myself that’s the last time I need to turn it on until this dreadful event is no longer a front page story.

    My kids don’t seem to have heard anything, so I’m very grateful for your unequivocal “there’s absolutely no reason to bring it up.” That leaves my own ongoing sorrow for those poor families in Connecticut to manage. Thank you.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you Betsy. No matter how much we obsess, watch, talk about this incident, we will never understand what drove a person to commit such a horrific and evil act. I’m concerned about our schools, which are soft targets for terrorists of all kinds. I hope this terrible tragedy opens up a dialogue about increasing safety measures in our schools- because we will never eradicate the malice in some people’s hearts.

  • Pattie Fitzgerald

    It is unfathomable what has happened today. Your words and wisdom will help many parents as they struggle to come to terms with how to talk to their children… or not. I’ve shared your blog on my FB page. Thank you, Betsy.

  • Anita

    Thank you for reaching out and supporting us parents during such a heart wrenching time. I am more than grateful to be hugging my kinder tonight! It also hit me that now that she is older, soon I will be asked these tough questions and I am grateful I will have a trusted friend to turn to help me respond with strength, wisdom and courage.

  • Robin

    Why do you feel it’s better for kids to learn about it from the media/their friends than their parents?

    I think there is 0 probability that they won’t hear about it at all, ever, and I’m curious why it’s not better coming from their parents.

  • Betsy BB

    Good question. Often (and usually) parents create issues (anxiety) where it didn’t exist by telling the news unnecessarily. Yes, it is a risk. News coming from a parent is heavy duty and very real. Parents can always deal with and titrate what the child has heard from peers, however.

  • Steven Kan

    I disagree with “there’s absolutely no reason to bring it up” because the odds are very, very good that your child will hear about it from friends/classmates/teachers/media/TV/whatever in the coming days.

    Your child will learn about it either from you, or from one of the sources listed above. It should be from a parent.

  • Terri Anderson

    Another perspective Steven. Hearing about it from a schoolmate etc, it is just another horror story from kid to kid. There is no reason for my child to realize the enormity that we as parents feel. What WILL affect them is our level of response. In the scheme of things, why should a parent sit them down and tell them about something scary and bad, that doesn’t affect them, until the parent tells them about it! My suggestion would be to keep the TV off and the violent scenes and fear out of your home, and maintain a sense of perspective from the child’s point of view, not the parent’s. My heart goes out to all the families.

  • Ken Rosenfeld

    Hi Betsy,
    Thanks for your thoughtful and grounded advice. My only nit to pick with the explanation is that serious mental illness is not rare, in fact many of our own families and our children’s classmates’ families have members facing serious mental illness. our kids also see it around them in their day-to-day lives. I think it’s important for us to distinguish with them the distinction between serious mental illness itself, which is most often not accompanied by violence and is treatable, and severe, untreated, violent mental illness which is, thankfully, much less common. Just my $.02 . . .

  • Betsy BB

    You have an interesting point, Ken. However, I don’t think mental illness should be examined or emphasized so much in this case, when explaining this tragedy. The point is that children, young children, need to be reassured that events like this are unusual and isolated. They need to understand that the shooter had a problem with his brain, his thinking. Perhaps down the road when it isn’t so raw, the conversation about mental illness can go beyond that.

    And today I am left thinking that, in fact, school safety isn’t the problem. It is the way this country does not deal with mental illness. Funding is being eliminated; people in need are not getting help. THAT is a big problem. (…to say nothing of gun control. But don’t get me started.)

  • Betsy BB

    Teri, above, makes the point so well, better than I. It was, in fact, what I was trying to say. Parents can deal and moderate what their children say they have heard. But when it comes from the parent, it’s a different impact. And Steven, please remember, we are talking about YOUNG children. They are susceptible and vulnerable; fear is easily generated.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment, both Steven and Teri…and others. We need to keep talking.

  • Julie Silver

    I can’t begin to thank you for this clear, thoughtful advice. Our family is grateful.

  • Jana Timchak

    I say-Don’t share that information unless the child asks about it. Nothing is to gained by telling them if they are not asking. If they do ask , I would be very general in the information, & with no elaboration.

  • alex

    Thank you for your post. A friend of mine shared it with me. We live in CT and even though my kids still haven’t heard about it I am worried if they will Monday at school. Is it best to wait till they get home and ask the same questions again?

  • Betsy BB

    Yes, I’m afraid it is quite likely that your child will hear something at school. Is there a way that you can find out today from teachers or administrators if there is any plan to discuss any part of this in school tomorrow? If you know that it WILL be discussed, I suggest that you bring it up by explaining that you have found out a very sad story. Emphasize the idea of the event being highly unusual and isolated and point to the shooter’s mental health problem. Less is more. Let your child know that he is safe and his school is safe. Beyond that, wait for your child’s questions after school.

  • alex

    Thank you for your response. I have emailed my sons teachers. They are in 1st and 3rd grade. I am sure the answer may differ between the two.

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