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Easing children’s fears after a mass shooting


Children will undoubtedly have questions about their own safety when they hear about the mass shooting in Connecticut that killed 20 elementary school students and seven adults before the shooter killed himself.

Holly Schiffrin, a University of Mary Washington psychology professor who specializes in child development and parenting practices, said the first step in helping children cope is to ask what they have heard and how they feel about it.

She said strategies for talking to children vary depending on the age and personality of the child.

Less information would be more appropriate for a child who is younger or is more emotional.

“Really reassure children that this is a rare event and not likely to happen at their school,” she said. “And tell them that everyone is working to keep them safe.”

Schiffrin also said to keep a close eye on children after speaking with them.

“Certain kids will take this very seriously,” she said.

She said to watch for warning signs, such as being quieter than normal, disruption in eating or sleeping and anxiety.

The National Association of School Psychologists also has offered tips on how to help your children cope with such a national tragedy:

Maintain a calm, controlled exterior. Children take their emotional cues from adults, and not appearing anxious or frightened will help them to do the same.

Reassure children that they are safe and so are the other important adults in their lives. Depending on the situation, point out factors that help ensure their immediate safety and that of their community.

Remind them that trustworthy people are in charge. Explain that the government emergency workers, police, firefighters, doctors and the military are helping people who are hurt and are working to ensure that no further tragedies occur.

Let children know that it is OK to feel upset. Explain that all feelings are OK when a tragedy like this occurs. Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective. Even anger is OK, but children may need help and patience from adults to assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.

Observe your child’s emotional state. Depending on their age,

children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite and sleep patterns can also indicate a child’s level of grief, anxiety or discomfort. Children will express their emotions differently. There is no right or wrong way to feel or express grief.

Look for children at greater risk. These children, including those who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs, may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Be particularly observant for those who may be at risk of suicide. Seek the help of a mental health professional if you are at all concerned.

Tell children the truth. Don’t try to pretend the event has not occurred or that it is not serious. They will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what is happening.

Stick to the facts. Don’t embellish or speculate about what has happened and what might happen. Don’t dwell on the scale or scope of the tragedy, particularly with young children.

Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.

Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structure of their lives will not change.

Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy.

Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society.

They will be more committed to doing something to help the victims and affected community. For all children, encourage them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings.

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976