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Moms Talk: Sharing Connecticut Tragedy with Your Kids

The nation is still reeling from the tragic events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School. When we have no words, when we grieve as parents, how do we discuss these events with our children?

It is every parent’s worst nightmare.

You slide a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the lunch box, help your child find his shoes and drop him off at school with a kiss. You go home, pour yourself a cup of coffee, check a few e-mails, feed the dog, throw a load of laundry in the washer and wonder what you’ll make for dinner. You trip over a few toys on your way upstairs, recite your to-do list and get ready to hop in the shower.

And then the phone rings. Suddenly, the to-do list, the scattered toys and the dirty laundry does not matter anymore. Because your life has been turned upside down.

What unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday was nothing short of horrific. It has left a nation reeling, aching, questioning. Too many little lives gone too soon. Injustice. Fury. Grief.

Like most mothers, I was going about my business Friday morning when my husband called to tell me the news. The tears came in a flood, fogging up my glasses as I headed down the 405 freeway. Tears for children and parents I did not know, but I could only imagine their pain. I checked the time on the car radio: 11:42 a.m. Too soon to pick up my precious kiddos. Yet I was tempted to rush to the school, grab them and pull them home to safety. The hours ticked by until pick-up arrived, and I watched the news, riveted, sick to my stomach.  Then I wiped my tears and pulled up to the school, never so relieved in all my life to see my children.

“Are you OK, Mom?” my 11-year-old son, always perceptive, asked as he hopped in the car.

“Something happened today,” I blurted out. “Something very bad. We need to pray for some kids in Connecticut and pray for their families, too. But don’t worry, you’re going to be okay. …” The words came in a flood, along with a fresh set of tears. Immediately, I worried I’d said too much. I glanced in the rear view mirror, where my 7-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter sat stoically, their eyes trained straight ahead.

“What happened, Mom?” my older son pressed.

“A man shot some kids at a school.” Again, the words flew out of my mouth, and I felt sick. “You’re going to be okay, though. Nothing is going to happen to you, OK?” My words sounded flimsy, pathetic, as they hung in the air. Just shut up, I told myself. Your kids don’t need to know any more.

I thought of my daughter, already having difficulty sleeping after a mountain lion sighting in our area over the summer. What had I just done?

No one said much on the ride home. I locked myself in my room and flipped on the news, sobbed, surfed the Internet and watched the horror unfold. God, what do I tell my kids? Will they find out from their friends? I don’t want them to live in fear, and I don’t want to live in fear myself. I’ve got to get a grip.

In a word that seems to be crumbling under increasing calamity, it can be difficult as a parent to not be overwhelmed with fear. There are tornadoes, hurricanes, car accidents, rare diseases and men who storm kindergarten classrooms and do the unthinkable. How do we send our children off into the big, bad world every day, knowing that so much potential harm lurks everywhere?

“I’m just going to pull my kids out of school and homeschool them,” one blogger wrote. “Then they’ll be safe from this crazy world.”

“I’m just glad I’m never having kids,” said another blogger. “Then I’ll never have to worry about these sorts of things.”

I understand these sentiments. But for those of us who do have kids, do we place them in bubble wrap and barricade them inside for the rest of their lives? Certainly, life must go on. But how? What precautions should we take? And just how much should we reveal to our kids about what happened on December 14?

The co-hosts on The View discussed the Sandy Hook tragedy this morning. Sherri Shepherd shared that she kept her television off to shield her young son and has yet to talk to him about the tragedy. Elisabeth Hasselbeck shared that her daughter had unfortunately heard the news of the events from a young friend and had learned much more than Hasselbeck planned to share with her.

When Barbara Walters asked her how other parents should deal with talking to their kids about this tragedy, Hasselbeck said she thought parents should sit with their kids and explain that these matters were “family talk, not recess talk.” She admitted it can be difficult, as “we have to be strong for our kids.”

Robin Gurwitch, a clinical psychologist and member of the American Psychological Association Disaster Response Network, said that the most important thing parents can do in the event of tragedy is to hug their kids and assure them they are safe. She said parents need to avoid thinking they should “protect” their kids by not talking about the tragedy.

“It’s important to start the conversation. If you have a child who is involved with social media in any way, shape or form, they know about it,” she said. “Even the youngest kids could have heard something on the school bus.”

Gurwitch said that parents need to start the conversation by finding out how much their child already knows, perhaps by saying something like, “Have you heard about what happened in Connecticut at the elementary school?” From there, they will have the opportunity to gently correct any misinformation the child may have heard about the events. It is also important, she said, to reinforce a sense of safety and security. She recommends limiting exposure to the news and being mindful of adult conversation that kids might eavesdrop on.

Other experts agree, saying avoiding the subject is not the answer. Kids will talk about the events, no matter how young, as they did in Hasselbeck’s daughter’s case. Much like the birds and the bees talk, it is important that parents set the facts straight before information becomes misconstrued.  Talking about it also gives parents and children an opportunity to grow closer and share other feelings they may have been holding inside, as well as an opportunity to show compassion toward others.

Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, Albany school district superintendent, encourages parents to listen for signs of worry and fear. She recommends parents reassure children they are safe by locking the doors in front of them and giving them extra hugs.

Health expert Dr. Steve O’Brien says that children who have struggled with anxiety in the past may become more anxious. “But you also want to highlight how the grown-ups in their environment can keep them safe,” he said. He recommends explaining any security features that are in place at a child’s school to reassure them. For older kids, he suggests doing some research online with them to help them see that these tragic events are essentially a very rare occurrence.

I don’t believe I handled things perfectly with my kids. I plan to continue the conversation with them today and throughout the weeks to come. We will continue to pray for the victims as a family and think of other ways we can help. And I will choose to not live in fear, as difficult as it may be.

My daughter is in a school play today, and though it was difficult to send her to school, I know I did the right thing. And so I will put on my red Christmas scarf, grab my camera and go cheer her on. And when she’s done, I’ll give her an extra long hug. And maybe one more for good measure.

Parents, how has this tragedy affected you? What have you said to your kids, if anything, about the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School? How do you deal with fear yourself, and how do you help comfort your child during such horrific events? 

We want to hear from you!

Charles December 18, 2012 at 01:12 AM
The last thing I would recommend my kids do is pray for anyone. (It's never been known to accomplish anything and I've never known anyone to pray who wasn't brainwashed.) I'd also point out that they are more likely to die riding a skateboard or getting stung by a bee than they are getting shot at school. For the most part kids are either too young to understand and have their attention elsewhere OR they are old enough to understand and pretty much realize there's a small population of people who do irrational things - some of which can be dangerous and harmful. I haven't found the need to proactively sit and talk with my kids. They fit into the either "too young" or "already understand" categories above. We're worrying about getting their homework tonight. Kids realize risk is a product of probability and consequence and they realize something like this is so rare, it is simply not worth worrying about. You can only do so much. They realize effort and time are better spent mitigating risks which are a lot more likely to occur.
Denise December 18, 2012 at 01:40 AM
Sad, Charles. Prayer accomplishes so much. And in this instance, praying for the grieving families allows my child an opportunity to respond in her own way. We are so far away from the situation, left feeling helpless. The one thing we can do from here is honor the victims and pray for the community. What I have never found to accomplish anything, Charles, is namecalling. Furthermore, I don't believe there are two "categories" which don't require talking about a national tragedy. I discussed it with both my elementary aged child and my high schooler. Did I go into detail? No. But the tragedy was addressed and our sadness shared. We haven't discussed it again. They are back in their busy routines. But tonight, we will hold Sandy Hook in our thoughts and prayers with love. (Btw, it almost sounds as if you, Charles, are getting paid to respond in a manner to promote disagreement. But that is fine with me!)
Martin Henderson (Editor) December 18, 2012 at 01:43 AM
You make a lot of good points, SouthCountyNative. As for Charles, I've got a grade in a college political science class that I slept through that proves prayer does work. :-)
Martin Henderson (Editor) December 18, 2012 at 01:53 AM
Let's make sure this discussion remains civil and on point, understanding that some people pray, and others don't.
Karen Koczwara December 18, 2012 at 03:05 AM
Thanks for your input! I think each family will deal with this tragedy differently, as they see fit for their kids....
Trisha Jones December 18, 2012 at 04:46 PM
I think your approach really depends on the child's age. I have a 6 year old and a 17 year old. I did NOT want to proactively discuss what happened with my 6 year old. There is nothing to learn from our gain from that conversation with him. If he heard, i would do what they recommended... ask him what he heard and answer any questions. While we do not pray in our home (in a religious sense), I think giving your children an action item will make them feel like they have a little control over the situation. Maybe the 26 acts of kindness? Writing a card or drawing a picture for the families of the victims?
Kristal Zacharias December 18, 2012 at 09:05 PM
Karen: What a lovely, insightful piece. I believe prayer does make a difference. I also shared my thoughts following the tragedy on my blog: http://www.clearlykristal.com.
Norman Conquest December 18, 2012 at 10:36 PM
I agree. Praying doesn't accomplish anything except to make the person praying feel better. Instead of praying, how about do something: send a letter to the families that lost their children, contribute money to poor in your area in honor of those young lives, work a soup kitchen in memory of the principal, write your congressman/woman about the need to regulate the people who own weapons, begin a crusade in your town to end violence. Pray if it makes you feel better, but take action if you truly want to make a difference in this world.
Norman Conquest December 18, 2012 at 10:50 PM
Pray if it makes you feel better, but take some action that will make a difference. If we all sit back and just pray, nothing will change and this tragedy will happen over and over again. Or instead of praying anonymously, send a letter to a family that lost their child and tell them that you are thinking about them and are praying for them. That will at least mean something to them, if only to make them feel less alone.
Raquel Reagan December 20, 2012 at 04:22 AM
Just be honest. Tell your kids it is the price of freedom, similar to freedom we have brought to Iraq in the last ten years where tens of thousands of children were collateral damage.

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