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How to Address School Tragedies With Your Child

12-17-2012 (HCS) - Our school system shares the grief and disbelief of the entire nation about the news of the terrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Our thoughts and prayers join those of the rest of the nation for the community of Newtown and the families who have lost loved ones. 

Parents, students and employees may take comfort in that HCS stands prepared to keep our students safe and secure. 

Traumatic events, such as shootings, bombings, or other violent acts, can leave children feeling frightened, confused and insecure.  Whether a child has personally experienced trauma, has seen the event on television, or has merely heard it discussed by adults, it is important for parents and educators to be informed and ready to help if stress reactions begin to occur. 

Children respond to trauma in many different ways.  Some may have reactions very soon after the event; others may do fine for weeks or months, and then begin to show troubling behavior.  Knowing the signs that are common at different ages can help parents and teachers recognize problems and respond appropriately.

Early Childhood (Ages 5 – 11)

These children may show regressive behavior or may cling to a trusted adult.  They may fear going to school, have physical aches and pains, difficulty sleeping, or have regressive behaviors more common in preschool aged children.

Adolescence (Ages 12 – 14 and older)

Children ages 12 – 14 are likely to have vague physical complaints when under stress, and may abandon choirs, school work, or other responsibilities they have previously handled.  They may withdraw or become easily angered or agitated.  These and older adolescents are at a developmental stage in which the opinions of others are very important, particularly their peers. 

How to Help

Reassurance is the key to helping children through a traumatic time.  Very young children need a lot of cuddling, as well as verbal support.  Answer questions about the event honestly, but do not dwell on frightening details or allow the subject to dominate family or classroom time indefinitely.  Encourage children of all ages to express emotions through conversation, writing, or artwork. 

Try to maintain a normal classroom or household routine, and encourage children to participate in recreational activity.  Acknowledge that you, too, have reactions associated with the traumatic event, and take steps to promote your own physical and emotional wellbeing.

Tips for Talking to Children After a Traumatic Event

·     Do talk with your child about the event in Connecticut in an age appropriate discussion.  Students will likely be talking about the event with other students.  It would be beneficial for children to hear the information from their parents first if at all possible. 

·     Give children the opportunity to ask questions.  Make sure they know they can always come to you to ask questions when they aren’t sure or don’t understand something. 

·     Provide children with opportunities to talk about what they are seeing on television or what they are hearing from their friends; encourage them to ask questions.

·     Do not be afraid to admit that you cannot answer all of their questions.

·     Answer questions at a level the child can understand.

·     Provide ongoing opportunities for children to talk.  They probably will have more questions as time goes on. 

·     Use this as an opportunity to establish a family emergency plan.  Feeling that there is something you can do may be very comforting to both children and adults.

·     Allow children to discuss other fears and concerns about unrelated issues.  This is a good opportunity to explore these issues also.

·     Monitor children’s television watching.  Some parents may wish to limit their child’s exposure to graphic or troubling scenes. To the extent possible, be present when your child is watching news coverage of the event.  It is at these times that questions might arise. 

(Adapted from US Department of Health and Human Services: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration “Tips for Talking to Children and Youth After Traumatic Events:  A Guide for Parents and Educators”)

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