There are no good words to explain to anyone -- let alone to kids -- what happened at the elementary school in Connecticut this morning. The horrific incident is every parent's worst nightmare, unfathomable and unspeakable. The air is heavy with the horror. The president of our country wept during his speech to the nation.
This is one of those times when parents' confidence disappears; they are rendered tongue-tied. How do you explain that 20 young children (and some grown-ups) were killed while they were at school?
Unless your child has been exposed to this incident -- by radio, TV, Internet or overhearing your loose talk -- there is absolutely no reason to bring it up to him. Period.
But if you are unsure, as many will be, about whether your child has heard anything about the incident, you can ask, "Did anything happen (at school) today that you want to talk about?" This question leaves a wide berth for your child to bring up anything he may be thinking.
If your child exclaims, "Did you hear what happened at the school in Connecticut?" you need to find out what he knows. Ask him to share what he heard. Then you can begin your conversation based on what he knows, answering his questions honestly, minimally, and be able to correct any misinformation to the best of your ability.
Here are some possible scripts or starting points for talking with your child about the tragedy.
Say as little as possible and state the bare facts:
Some grown-ups and children were killed at a school. That is as much as I know.
Who did it?
I only know that he was a man named Adam.
Why did he do that?
After you share the correct information, and your child asks, "Why did he do that?" you can explain:
No one knows why he did it. We only know that he was not well. He had a serious problem with his thinking. He was sick in his mind, and he did a terrible thing.
Just like people sometimes have problems with their bodies, like a hearing impairment or a leg that doesn't work, for example, once in a long while someone has a severe problem with his brain. The guy who did the shooting had a big problem with his brain. It didn't work properly, and he did a horrible, crazy thing. He could not think right.
You will need to add for reassurance:
Most people's brains work right. But once in a long long while someone's mind doesn't tell him what is and isn't okay to do. He doesn't know right from wrong, and he can't stop himself from doing crazy things. But this is very very rare; it doesn't happen very often at all.
For older children:
If your older child, 10 years and older, comes to you wanting to talk about it, depending upon his maturity, encourage the conversation. Ask him what he thinks might have been going on with someone who does something so horrific. Then share the same observations about mental illness, and the rarity of the act. Not only will he share the burden of his fears with you, thereby lessening his load, but you will be able to reassure him of the randomness of the act and how remote the likelihood of it happening again is. You might also discuss how the media and Internet bring terrible news instantly and relentlessly. While it is an unfathomable act, having it thrown into your consciousness makes it even bigger.
Beware! Your children are listening.
My colleague shared that, while all media was shut down in her house during 9/11, her 5-year-old son, never having been to New York, built "the twin towers" with his blocks in his playroom. Children hear, see, feel, and absorb what goes on around them. You may not think you child is listening, but he hears you.
Mind your affect.
It is close to impossible not to have been horror-stricken by this event. But it is critical that you modulate and take care of your own feelings. Children read and absorb their parents' feelings. No need to add your worries to your child's. And be sure to seek the help of a mental health professional if you need help in managing your anxiety.
Fears of all kinds may be generated in the child who learns of this event. Do not downplay his fears. Rather, acknowledge that you understand that he is frightened. You will need to reassure him over and over that you are all safe, that this was an unusual event. You may need to remind him of all the safety precautions that are in place, of all the people whose job it is to keep us safe -- police, firefighters, security people, the TSA. Car alarms, house alarms, seat belts are just a few of the ways that we are safe every single day. However, if after a few weeks your child's fears are getting in the way of his functioning, you should contact a mental health professional.
Tragedy's shelf life.
It takes all people, including children, time to process events like the killings in Connecticut. Don't be surprised if your child continues to ask questions, even the same ones, over and over. He is only trying to make sense and process what has happened the best he can.
In times of tragedy, you need to circle the wagons, stay close, and be the family safety net your child needs you to be.