Tips for how to talk to your children about the tragedy in Connecticut

Parents: Talk about this tragedy with your children (Your children are highly likely to hear about it from others, whether it is the media or TV, so take some time to address it so that it can come from the people who are charged with keeping them safe: their parents)

  • It doesn’t have to be a long talk; and it can come in bursts (a little here, a little there) but say something
  • You don’t have to know exactly what to say to say something. But I do encourage parents to take a few moments to reflect on what they’re going to say. I think it’s important to be intentional – because as long as you have good, thoughtful intentions, you are not going to go wrong with what you say; because above all, your children will see that you care
  • Keep whatever you say developmentally appropriate
    • Maybe start by letting small children know where Connecticut is
    • You don’t need to include all of the details (I know that many parents want to avoid discussing the suicide aspect of this tragedy, because they worry about having to explain the depths of what suicide is on top of having to explain the murdering of children)
    • You don’t need to promise complete safety (for example, instead of blindly promising that “Nothing like this could ever happen to you,” consider focusing on validating their fears and promising only what you can follow through with: Something along the lines of “I will do everything I possibly can to talk to your school to help you figure out what their safety plan is.”
    • Try not to expect any particular type of reaction. Oftentimes parents tell me that they “expected their child would respond similarly to what they did,” and that they “were disappointed in their lack of concern,” and then I explain to the parents that children’s brain development is completely different than adults. Children, especially adolescents, have a tendency to primarily focus on what directly impacts them, so don’t be surprised if young people say something to the effect of “I don’t care” (I experienced that yesterday in talking to some adolescents about it). Be mindful that “I don’t care” does not necessarily need to be taken literally – it could be a statement of insecurity around others; and it also could be a statement of confusion on their part. Or maybe they are too far removed and really just do not care. However children respond is okay. The point is to validate them. If your children do not care, then I would be less concerned with making them feel guilty for not caring and much more concerned with the underlying causes of why they do not care. Nonetheless, they should not be viewed as wrong for any reaction they have.
    • Understand that children who are sad have a tendency to act out
      • Consider having a compassionate, consistent approach to any acting out behaviors
      • Also be on the lookout for nightmares and things like sudden questions about dead pets or even language around “I miss Aunt Beverly” who lives in Florida and whom the child only met once. Instead of responding to the literal words your children might be using, consider responding to their overarching feeling
      • Try to dispel any rumors, and try not to add to any rumors by talking about details that you simply do not know.
      • Find out what your children’s fears are, and address them directly without adding or introducing too many new fears
        • If your children ask you, “Is my classroom safe?” and if you don’t know that answer, then say, “I will go to school with you and we will find that out together.”
        • With everything that is happening and all the horrific news filling your children’s minds, I strongly encourage parents to take extra time at bedtime to tell your children a comforting, very peaceful bedtime story (or even peaceful stories during the day). Having peaceful thoughts in your child’s head allows them to have more in the pool of thoughts from which to choose when they find themselves daydreaming later on. You do not have to be an expert storyteller, just something simple about taking a peaceful walk in a safe place with loved ones smiling all around will be sufficient
        • Use your children’s strengths to help them cope – consider reminding them about a time in the past when they were afraid and how they made it through that moment.
        • What matters is that your children see that you care – and sometimes when we try to give our children too much of an explanation, our “love and concern” gets overshadowed by too many words that children cannot follow anyway.
        • Many times parents think, “My child is mature enough, she or he can handle this” – but the fact is, our children have limited life experiences. Let’s guide them appropriately the way parents should
        • Finally remember that blanket statements about revenge or what you “would do if you caught the bad guy,” while well intentioned to let your children know you would fight for them – are also simply putting more violent thoughts into your children’s minds. I would encourage you to instead save those types of thoughts for adults.

There are always knee-jerk reactions to pinpointing one single factor as the “cause” of the event. So people will blame guns, or video games, or I even saw someplace someone say “poor parenting”, and somewhere else I saw that the cause was mental health issues. The point is, it’s really comforting to be able to identify one single factor in the equation for why people do what they do; if that approach helps you and your family, then by all means do it. But the fact is, there are always multiple factors contributing to every interaction.

More than anything, please take time to talk to your children. Please let them know that you will be there for them regardless of how they feel, and that your “door is always open for them to come talk.”

This tragedy is horrific; but no amount of ignoring it will make it go away. Please feel free to ask me questions in the comment section of this entry if you would like.

One thought on “Tips for how to talk to your children about the tragedy in Connecticut

  1. Hi Dr. Conte! I looked you up (Googled you actually) because I don’t have an updated email address for you and I was pleasantly surprised to find your website. I wanted to tell you THANK YOU because as I am working with kids at the Boys & Girls Club, in my classes through the CEP program, as well as my personal life I have used your 5 Errors of Communication on several occasions and each time I do I think of you. I did not have a chance to formally bid you farewell but I want you to know that YOU were the reason I was excited to get into the CEP program and YOU are the reason I am still pursuing my goal to help others. YOU are one of the best professors I have had in my college career and I am sorry I did not get to tell you that in person. I am happy to see you doing well. Happy Holidays to you and your family!

    Sincerely,

    Casey Rogers

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