A gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, at a Connecticut elementary school today. Parents of school-aged children are probably especially on edge, wondering how to approach the subject with their little ones, what's appropriate to say, and how they can handle their own shock and grief with young eyes watching. Boston.com Moms talked with Louis Kruger, associate professor in the department of counseling and applied educational psychology at Boston's Northeastern University, about how parents should talk with their children about a school shooting. (Photo: Louis Kruger)
Boston.com Moms: We are seeing parents comment on social media about how they are unsure of how to talk about this with their kids. What is your advice?
Kruger: If the kids are aware of it, you have to talk to them about it. What you donít want to do is give the impression that itís a taboo subject and they need to keep the feelings to themselves.
Boston.com Moms: How young is too young to talk about it?
Kruger: Even preschoolers, if they bring it up, you can mention, 'This is a very bad thing that happened.' But I think it would also be a mistake to go beyond the obvious facts. You donít want to embellish on what might have happened.
I think for children that are aware of this and it does have an impact, the primary question in their minds is, 'Can something like that happen to me and where are the adults that are supposed to protect me?'
Boston.com Moms: And what is a parent to say?
Kruger: You remind them that they can trust the people at school and that they are safe at school ... You and I may be frightened by this but we understand this is a pretty unusual occurrence. Itís hard for them to get that concept. [They think] 'Well, why wouldnít that happen here?' The best we can do is tell them weíre going to do our best to keep them safe. [Tell them] 'Youíve been safe so far and itís my responsibility and your teachers' responsibility to keep you safe and theyíre doing a very good job of that. And if there are times you donít feel safe, I really want you to tell me about that, I really want to hear it, donít keep it to yourself.'
Boston.com Moms: Is it OK to say you don't know when a child asks a question?
Kruger: You can. Yes, if you donít know the specifics. But very often thereís a feeling, a concern, behind the question. It's not details just for the sake of getting details but more along the lines of, 'Gee how can that happen?' Reassure a child that you will do everything possible to keep him or her safe.
Boston.com Moms: Should parents let children watch TV coverage of the tragedy?
Kruger: I think itís appropriate for adults to control it because you donít know what theyíre going to show on TV. [The TV network] can apologize for it afterward and meanwhile it can scare the heck out of your kid. You are in charge of that environment and I think thatís important.
You donít want to shield your child from all the realities of life. Thatís not going to help them grow up. But you also donít want to expose them to things that are beyond their emotional ability to comprehend. There is a balance there
Boston.com Moms: What are the signs that a child is not dealing well with tragic news like this?
Kruger: You look for changes in behavior, appetite, if they are agitated, anxious, or particularly quiet. I think itís important for parents to recognize those kind of indicators and say to the child, 'Is something bothering you?' And to make the child feel comfortable.
Boston.com Moms: How can parents cope with their own grief and feelings of helplessness?
Kruger: I think you need to talk to other adults about it -- trusted others. And share your feelings. It shatters our illusion of being able to keep the world safe for our children. Most of the time thatís true. But itís events like this, I think, that communicate to us that, yeah, weíre not in total control with keeping our children safe. And thatís a scary thought for adults.
Itís OK to let your child know that you feel sad and upset about this but ... if weíre too blunt, I think, with our feelings, we may frighten our own children.
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Kristi Palma, Boston.com Moms producer, is the mom of a first grader and a preschooler. She is a writer who enjoys cooking her grandmother's Italian recipes (when her son isn't launching paper airplanes into them). Follow her on Twitter @kristipalma.