How To Talk to Your Kids About the School Shooting

Snapshots of life at home.
Dec. 14 2012 5:21 PM

How To Talk to Your Kids About the School Shooting

Be honest, but not too honest.

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Residents grieve following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

What do you say to your elementary-school-aged children about the mass slaughter of children at an elementary school? I put this question to Dr. Alan E. Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center. He said there are two main principles to keep in mind: comfort and information. People should be ready to respond honestly to their children’s question, but at the level they are asked and with the minimum of detail necessary.

If your child has managed to remain oblivious to this horror and has not brought it up, then Kazdin advises that you should not either. You can help keep your child blessedly in the dark by limiting exposure to media coverage. He said after 9/11, child psychologists coined a new term, “secondary terrorism,” for the destabilizing experience many young children went through after being exposed to the attacks on an endless television loop.

But if your child has heard, wants to know what happened, or is worried something like this is going to happen at his or her school, Kazdin says to respond honestly but cryptically. Use simple, declarative, age-appropriate sentences, like “Someone came into a school and hurt some children. We don’t know why.” Then you can comfort your children by saying their school is safe, and that you’re confident their school is one of the safest places they can be. Let’s say your child follows up with, “But how do you know?” Kazdin says to reply, “Because nothing like this ever happened at your school. Or at Mommy or Daddy’s school.”

He says a touch or a hug can convey comfort more powerfully than words. But he also says you don’t want to reassure out of proportion to your usual behavior—your kids can pick up when you’re acting oddly. Sticking to family ritual is also important. Once the questions have been answered, parents should take the conversational lead and shift into something more normal: “Hey, it’s almost dinner time. I need you to help me set the table.” Keeping up the usual routine tells your kids all is still right in their world.

Kazdin said the most important thing you want to communicate is not information about this gut-churning event. It’s that when things trouble or confuse your kids, they can come to you for answers, and they will get them, but in a way that helps relieve their anxiety. Kazdin says to keep in mind that being fearful is a normal developmental phase—think of the times you’ve had to show your children that there are no monsters under the bed. So you want to be sensitive not to give the kind of unnecessary detail that feeds a child’s tendency toward fear. And forget the tough love and tough lessons. This is not the time to let your 8-year-old know the world is full of horrible people.

Maybe you will be so overwhelmed at this tragedy that your child will see you crying. Again, just be brief and honest. “I’m so sad for what happened to those other families.” But as one Arlington, Va. elementary-school principal emailed to parents today, parents should seek out other adults for help with their own sorrow and fear.

Let’s say your child hears that a man went through the school shooting children and is worried he’ll come to their school. You can tell your child the man is dead. Period. If your child asks how, you can reply without elaboration that he was shot. Again, Kazdin says the key is honest, concise, but vague information, keyed to your child’s specific questions and age.

My daughter is now 17, but just as she began kindergarten in Washington, D.C., the 9/11 attacks happened. Her school was K-8 and while the administration told the older kids, they said nothing to the young ones, for which we were very grateful. After I came to school early to get her, my husband and I stopped talking about the news or flipped the television off when she came into the room. She seemed happily oblivious. But of course the world intrudes. A few weeks later my husband and I fell silent when she walked in on yet another discussion of terror. She said, “I know what you two were talking about.” We asked her what. She made a plane out of one hand, and a building out of another and then drove the “plane” into the “building” and said, “Boom!” We told her she was right and asked how she knew. She’d heard about it from the other kids—everyone was talking about it. She’d even seen it on TV. We asked if she had any questions and she said she didn’t. She told us it was OK now if we talked about it in front of her. She knew we didn’t want to tell her, and she wanted us to know that she knew.