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How Do I Talk to My Kids About Tragedy? 10 Expert Tips

As news comes streaming in about the tragedy at Sandy Hook  Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I can only do one thing: gather information on how to talk to kids about this.

Obviously, what you need to say depends tremendously on the ages of your children, their emotional development, and how close this horrific story hits to home. I grew up in New Milford, CT, which is a town over from Newtown. I have friends who live there and in the surrounding area, friends whose children were in lockdown this morning. It’s painful for me to read about, but I still have the luxury of physical distance. My kids weren’t locked down today.

However, like the rest of America, they’re going to be affected in some way by this. Mostly, I just want to avoid the whole thing, hope they never, ever hear about it, and hide in the basement for the next 12 years. However, that’s not the healthiest approach.

Here are the tips I’ve gathered from several experts on how to talk to children about tragedies in the news. I hope they help.

1. Dr. Harold Koplewicz of the Child Mind Institute advises parents to break the news to children themselves. “It’s much better for the child if you’re the one who tells her,” he says, rather than letting your child find out from another person or from a headline.

2. At the same time, the American Psychological Association advises that parents limit their children’s exposure to the news, as well as their own. “Constant exposure may actually heighten anxiety and fears,” says the APA. “Also, scheduling some breaks for yourself is important; allow yourself time to engage in activities you enjoy.”

3. Ask your child what they have already heard, if anything, about the news. “Listen to their thoughts and point of view; don’t interrupt–allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond,” recommends the APA.

4. Give your child plenty of opportunities to ask questions, says Dr. Koplewicz. “Be prepared to answer (but not prompt) questions about upsetting details,” he says. Your goal is to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies.”

5. Remind your child that you’re there to provide comfort, safety, and support. Keep reminding them of this over the next several weeks, says Massachusetts General Hospital.

6. Model calm behavior and make your home a safe, comforting place. Tonight’s the night to enjoy a family activity at home.

7. Let your child express herself or himself. Children of different ages may express themselves through talk, play, or art, or any combination of those. Signs of stress, fear, and anxiety can include trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work, or changes in appetite, says the APA. Understand that these are normal responses. Encourage your children to express their feelings by talking about them, journaling, or making art.

8. A natural reaction for a child is to fear that this could happen at their school, says Dr. Koplewicz. “So it’s important to reassure your child about how unusual this kind of event is, and the safety measures that have been taken to prevent this kind of thing from happening to them. You can also assure him that this kind of tragedy is investigated carefully, to identify causes and help prevent it from happening again. It’s confidence-building for kids to know that we learn from negative experiences.”

9. Keep things as “normal” as possible, says the APA, and continue with regular family routines. “Keep regular schedules for activities such as family meals and exercise to help restore a sense of security and normalcy.”

10. Remember that this will affect all children differently. “Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others,” says the National Association of School Psychologists.

Above all else, hug your children tonight. It’ll make you both feel better.

Read more from Joslyn on Babble and at her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow Joslyn on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

(Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

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