FOR PARENTS: How to Talk to Your Kids About Sandy Hook

parent-talking-to-childOn the morning of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, I was sitting in my own child’s elementary school auditorium welling up with tears of joy at the holiday program. I don’t think we can get closer to God than when we look into the eyes of a newborn baby or hear a four-year-old belt out “Joy to the World.” As the last red sweater stumbled down the stage steps, I automatically grabbed my iPhone to tune back in to the world.

What I read in that device stopped my body short. A slew of emails from media outlets with subject lines that read elementary school shooting – kids dead. I’d like to say that I wept immediately, that my heart raced, that I shook violently, that I had trouble breathing. The emails bespoke a child’s world of chaos, horror and tragedy. And kids are my sweet spot. When I write and speak on television or in public about relationships, my advice always circles back to what is best for kids. I beg adults to put their own “needs” behind them and be accountable to their responsibilities to love and protect the children they created.

But the traumatic news of the Sandy Hook shooting gently washed over me like a tiny wave lapping the sand. Trauma is like that. Tidal waves can show up later. But instead of answering to the calls of all those journalists, I found myself walking zombie-like to the third grade classroom and asking the teacher if I might stay and help with an art project and a holiday party. Obviously, I needed to be near my child while my compassion meter registered the sober reality of the horrors of those Connecticut parents. After dismissal, rather than letting my high-schooler take her usually city bus, I drove as if on autopilot, to pick her up.

This morning it hit. That tidal wave. As I type this, I am sitting in a metaphoric swimming pool filled with my own tears. Trauma is working its curious way through my body. And that’s what I would like everyone to understand. Whether you are in Sandy Hook, Connecticut or in your living room watching the horrific scenes unfold on television, you and your children may experience trauma.

 Individuals experience trauma in different ways. Some people are spurred into action, feeling that “doing something” will ease their pain. They organize fundraising drives or prayer groups. Others get busy in a different way. Seeming to be oblivious, they distract themselves with unrelated tasks. But this defense usually lasts until the trauma works it’s way out through irritability and petty fights with loved ones. Still others, the talker and extroverts among us, take to the phones and Twitter and Facebook and in a flurry or words asking “why?” and “how can we prevent?” they attempt to ease the pain from their bodies. Others fall silent. Numbness takes over. If they are lucky artists, the trauma oozes out through their hands into provocative art. Some people are fine until nightfall, when their dreams disturb the gentle silence. The point is we all deal with trauma in different ways.

And children are especially sensitive. They tend to be less verbal so the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder almost always show up in their bodies — regressions, bed wetting, whining, tantrums, toy breaking, nightmares. And in today’s times, with such pervasive media, it will be nearly impossible to keep the trauma of Sandy Hook away from any school aged child. As a parent, here are a few ways that you can help your child deal with the news:

1. Let your Child Lead the Conversation: Don’t bombard kids with details that can barely comprehend. Answer questions honestly and calmly. Show compassion on your face and in your voice. Give no more details than what is asked.

2. Contain yourself – Small children look to parents to cue them on how they should feel. While you don’t want kids to think you are unfeeling, collapsing in crying jags and telephone rants in front of kids can rattle their core. To them, you are their strong protector. If you fall apart, so will they.

3. Do not punish developmental regressions. Bed wetting may happen. Tantrums can occur again. A child may want to sleep in your bed. This is not the time for lectures and stern admonitions. This is the time to wrap a child in your arms and let them know everything will be okay.

4. Don’t Make them Talk About it – Most children in shock have a hard time connecting feelings with words. Instead create draw, sing, or play music.

5. Model Healthy ways of dealing with trauma – Light a candle for the victims and their families. If you practice a faith, have your children join you in prayer. Find a positive thing to do together as a family in your own community. (My family is packing holiday food baskets next week.) Find a way to reach out into your own community with love and care.

Childhood psychological trauma is tricky. Some kids can have wounds that show up decades later in the forms of unexplained fears and anxieties. Others, because of the miracle of neuroplasticity, have brains that heal well, sometimes much better than adults who have been exposed to trauma. The most important thing in the days, weeks, and months to come, is that you remain in tune with your children. Look into their eyes, listen to the many meanings of their words, give them creative outlets to express. And most of all, don’t criticize them. They are finding their own perfect way to ease trauma out of their tiny body. Be a kind, solid, presence while they do that.

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