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Connecticut School Shooting: Tips For Talking to Your Child

I was talking with my good friend, Dr. Tiffany Dial about the Connecticut school massacre. She is a professional doctor of Psychology and currently works within an urban school district for an Alternative Program at an elementary school. She has counseled schools and individuals on grief issues that range from violence in school to traumatic, domestic issues. 
In addition to her work at elementary schools, she has also counseled parents, staff and children at the middle and high school level.

Let me start off by saying that I myself, would advise parents to disconnect their children from the situation the best they can. Meaning, no watching the news or talking about the incident when children are around. Be mindful of how and when you talk about what happened. Always use extreme tact and discretion. I'm not suggesting that children should be shielded from the fact that horrible things may happen.
However, I feel as though the conversation should not be about this tragedy specifically nor the details surrounding it. Rather, this horrific incident can serve as the catalyst for the discussion on what to do in case of a situation such as this. Take the time, as a family to go over what your child should do if or when they hear gunfire or screaming. Discuss in detail how to stay out of harms way and how to keep as calm as possible.

I also know that living in reality and keeping this away from some children may be an impossibility. Therefore, I asked Dr. Dial what her advice would be to parents that may be asked questions by their children. The who, what, when and why of the shooting. The first piece of advice that she said from the very top was, listen. I know that seems so easy and very obvious but, there's not just one way to listen. Listen to what their questions and concerns are. Zero in on the exact fear. Let them tell you how they feel and listen to the emotion behind their words. Don't just wait for a chance to chime in, really take the time to listen. It's easy for parents and adults to want to move on quickly and not take actual stock in what these little individuals have to say. This should not be one of those times. Children don't understand how far Connecticut is from home or their school. They don't know the difference between their classroom and potential danger. Reassurance that they are safe and that you are going to keep them from harm.

Dr. Dial also advised that parents should communicate with their children on the basis of their age. If the children are aware of the school shooting, she reiterates that parents should listen to their children. Paying attention to what they say and what they don’t say. It is important to communicate that although school shootings do occur, they are rare incidents. Therefore, children can be scared, but this will most likely not occur at their particular school. Parents should definitely monitor the amount of television related to the school shooting coverage that their children watch. If their children have reoccurring fears or are scared to attend school due to the incident, parents should consider having their child talk to a psychologist or counselor to assist the child through this difficult time.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released some tips that focus on how to speak to a child based on their age that you may find helpful as well: 

Tips for Talking to Children in Trauma
As you know, the safety of our students is of the utmost concern. In light of the tragic shooting incident in Newton, Connecticut, Prince George's County Public Schools is working alongside local law enforcement agencies to provide additional security around our elementary school sites. While there have been no threats to our schools, we are taking these steps as a precaution.
In the event that you need assistance dealing with this traumatic incident with your children, here are tips that may be useful:
Children often show signs of stress after a traumatic event. Signs may include sadness, tantrums, aggressive behavior, and a return to outgrown behavior. Signs may also include stomachaches and headaches, and an ongoing desire to stay home from school or away from friends. These signs are normal and usually do not last long. You can help your child with the following suggestions.  
Stick to regular family routines.
Make an extra effort to provide comfort and support.
Avoid separation.
Allow your child to sleep in the parents’ room for a limited time.
Encourage your child to express feelings through play, drawing, puppet shows, and storytelling.
Limit media exposure.
Develop a safety plan for future incidents.

Elementary Age Children

Provide extra attention.
Set gentle but firm limits for acting out behavior.
Always listen to your child’s telling of the experience.
Encourage your child to express feelings through talk and play.
Provide home chores and activities that are structured, but not too demanding.
Rehearse safety measures for future incidents.
Explain how people helped each other during the event.

Preadolescents and Adolescents
Provide extra attention.
Be there to listen to your child, but do not force talk about feelings.
Encourage discussion of experiences among peers.
Promote involvement with community recovery work.
Urge your child to take part in physical activities.
Support the return to regular activities.
Rehearse family safety measures for future incidents.

You do not have to “fix” how your child feels. Try to help your child understand and cope with the experience. Healing takes time for most children. Some children may need professional help. If signs of stress do not subside after a few weeks, or if they get worse, consider consulting a mental health professional trained in working with children. Your child will return to health in time and with help.
One last thing, always remember to show your children love and not just when something as mind-blowing as this happens. Show love and appreciation everyday, as you never know when it may be your last. Peace & Blessings to all. My heart and soul aches for the families having to endure this pain. 

photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc
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