Up until now, most parents could control the flow of information. This weekend, many of us followed the expert advice we’d heard or read: Turn off the TV, limit exposure to the news and, if we must talk about the Newtown massacre with our children, to do so in simple, reassuring language.
But we were in a vacuum.
That all changes Monday as kids headed back to schools; schools where tense atmospheres, new police presences and a curriculum of disaster drills are being sprung upon them.
One Georgetown University childhood trauma expert said in The Washington Post on Monday that the adult reaction, in the form of more police presence and tightened security, is “a double-edged sword.”
“I’m sure it will be very reassuring for the parents, but for the children and staff it’s going to be another reminder of what happened,” Priscilla Dass-Brailsford said.
Add to that the fact that school hallways and playgrounds are notorious for acoustics that allow any rumor or taboo information to ricochet.
No matter how hard teachers and principals try to limit unsupervised discussions, many kids will arrive home Monday with new and troubling ideas about something so horrible that it certainly doesn’t need embellishment.
What to do? Follow a child’s lead, experts say.
Dass-Brailsford’s colleague at Georgetown, Matthew Biel, offered this advice, “If they bring it up, ask what they know about the event and ask if they have any questions.
“Use simple, direct, honest answers and employ age-appropriate language and explanations. Children who don’t discuss the event shouldn’t be prodded by parents — kids will let us know when they are ready to talk.”
And, even after a child seems to now know about the event, continue to limit the media exposure. “We know from past events that children who are exposed to significant amounts of media coverage are much more likely to suffer from traumatic stress symptoms. Younger children in particular aren’t able to distinguish past and present in media coverage — seeing ongoing coverage is repetitively traumatic and harmful.”
He said it’s also good to be on the lookout for anxiety or distress, which manifests itself in younger children as separation anxiety, disruptive behavior, sleeping difficulties or regression. It can also cause stomachaches or headaches.
Older children may seem tougher, but anxiety can reveal itself through changes, moodiness or irritability, he said.
Washington parenting coach Meghan Leahy adds that honesty is an imperative. “Always tell the truth, and only answer the questions kids have. Do not start going into detail unless the children keep asking,” Leahy said.
“If you have an anxious, worried child, it is even more important to have talks with him. Their imaginations will run wild with the rumors and these children will build scenarios that are more awful than any reality. Take care of these children, especially. Do not be afraid to contact your school and ask who they have to help students.
The key for a parent at this point and as we go forward, Biel and Leahy said, is to reassure children and teens.
“Stay calm, stay focused, and always leave the conversation saying, ‘Mommy and daddy are safe, our family is safe, your school is safe. Everyone is working hard to make sure that happens and we are confident that we are okay. Mommy and daddy are taking care of it. You can ask me anything you want, whenever you want and your school has people who want to listen to you, too.’ ”
How much do your kids know about Newtown? What’s your strategy for talking to them through the coming days?