Talking to Children about the Conn. Tragedy

Tragedies like Friday’s school shooting in Connecticut can cause a great deal of anxiety and fear, especially for children.

Those emotions can last for days or weeks. The County of San Diego’s Assistant Deputy Director for Behavioral Health Services, Dr. Piedad Garcia, offered advice about how to talk to children–and how to cope in general—with tragedies like this:

  • It’s important for parents to be aware of their children’s responses and be ready to talk openly about them, without providing too many details. “Each child manifests their distress differently,” Garcia said. “It has to do with their age and their maturity, and what they see on TV also.” Parents should monitor how their children are doing and acknowledge that their children’s feelings are OK. Younger children may want to sleep in their parents’ beds tonight, she said. They may complain of stomachaches and they may want to talk about the incident. These are normal reactions to a stressful situation, Garcia said.
  • Parents should limit children’s exposure to information on the tragedy, whether through the media or smart phones or another source. “Sometimes what happens is they are overly stimulated by the information and that can create even further anxiety,” Garcia said. The media may repeat the same distressing images, but parents can emphasize to children that the event has ended. Reassure them that they are safe.
  • Answer children’s questions simply, without dramatizing the incident.
  • Provide perspective to children, explaining to them that these incidents are not a common occurrence.
  • Adults should be aware of their own stress levels and try to stay calm. Children look to their caretakers and parents for answers and a sense of security and safety. Adults should talk to another adult about what they’re feeling too, Garcia said.

For more advice on how to help children cope with tragedy-related anxiety, check out this tip sheet.

The County also operates the Access and Crisis Line seven days a week, 24 hours a day, where people can get help for issues such as depression, anxiety, anger or other mental health challenges. The number is 888-724-7240.

The County’s Behavioral Health Services has these additional tips on how parents can best support their children through this difficult time:

  • Recognize the sudden, unexpected, tragic nature of the event. Parents should express clearly that children and teachers were hurt.
  • Confirm that a lot of people are upset and that they may be for awhile.
  • Let them know that safety plans are in place. Explain to children that their safety and security are critical to their schools, law enforcement and government.
  • Provide emotional support. It may take minutes, hours or even days for the incident to affect children. When it does, provide nurturance (hugs, empathy, kindness, calm support) and ask about their thoughts and feelings. 
  • Limit children’s exposure to TV news. Hearing updates on the unfolding investigation or other aspects of the case is not helpful for children. The ongoing exposure to the incident can exaggerate the event in their minds.
  • Keep doing the day-to-day family activities together. Some children’s sleep, appetite and social interest may be mildly disrupted. If these problems persist more than a few days, contact your family doctor or the County’s Access and Crisis Line at 888-724-7240.

Mental health experts also offered these behavioral signs that may show your child is reacting to the incident:

  • Infants up to two years old may react to their parents’ anxiety or other responses. The infants may be irritable, they may cry more than usual and want to be cuddled.
  • Preschool-aged children are not able to fully understand the tragedy, but they may know enough to feel helpless and overwhelmed. They may feel fear and insecurity about being separated from caregivers. They may try to re-enact the incident through play activities.
  • Elementary school-age children have a better ability to understand the tragedy. They may become intensely preoccupied with the details of the event and want to discuss it. Other reactions may include sadness, generalized or specific fears about the event happening again, as well as feelings of guilt, overreaction or inaction. They may feel angry that the event was not prevented or have fantasies of rescuing others.
  • Middle school and high school-age children could become involved in dangerous, risk-taking behaviors such as reckless driving or alcohol and drug use. Others may be fearful of leaving home. A teenager may have intense feelings but not want to discuss them. They may not want to attend school or participate in school-based activities. School performance may decline. Teens may become argumentative and/or withdrawn.