How to talk with young children about today's events

The details surrounding Friday’s horrifying events at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. are trickling in. But one thing we know for sure: Many grownups across the nation will be having challenging conversations with their children this afternoon and evening, helping them make some sense of this senseless occurrence.


A parent and a child walk away from the Sandy Hook Elementary School following a shooting inside the school in Newtown, Conn., 14 Dec. 2012. (Jeff Spooner/EPA)

Jamie Howard is a clinical psychologist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of anxiety and mood disorders in children and adolescents at the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center at The Child Mind Institute in New York. Here is her advice for discussing Friday’s events with our own young children, even as the news continues to unfold:

— Limit their exposure to media. “We want grownups to provide information, not the media,” Howard says. “Media may tend to sensationalize” events — and children may interpret the frequency with which news stories are presented as meaning that those events are “happening over and over again.”

— “Be brief, be concrete and do NOT use euphemisms” to describe what has happened.”

— If a child is asking questions you can’t answer, tell him or her, “We’re still waiting to get more information. We’ll talk again after we know more.” But “keep lines of communication open” in case your child still feels the need to talk. -

— “Ask open-ended questions. Focus on them,” on what they know and what they’re thinking about. “See where they’re at. Sometimes they’re curious, sometimes they’re worried. And sometimes they can only take in so much information” at one time. -

— “Monitor adult conversations around kids. Kids can pick up intensity and emotion.” Do your best to “appear calm, even if you’re not feeling that way.” -

— Reassure them. “Give them concrete information about what happened — a man hurt some kids in a classroom — and explain that we all work to keep kids safe. Provide some concrete information about what adults do to keep kids safe.”

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