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December 16, 2012

Purdue professor: It’s important to let children talk about tragedy

The images of Friday’s tragic school shooting in Connecticut are inescapable even to the youngest among us.

As parents and caregivers struggle to understand what happened, they need to be ready to help children with their questions and fears, says a Purdue University child development expert.

It’s important to let children talk about it and also to maintain as normal a routine as possible, says Judith Myers-Walls, professor emeritus of child development, who has researched how parents and children talk about war, peace and terrorism.

One thing she advises against is keeping children home from school, particularly in the days immediately after the shooting. “I think that is very likely to increase a child’s fear,” she said. “The most reassuring thing for kids is to maintain as much routine as you can, and for children, that is going to school.”

Also, while parents may want to try to insulate and protect their children from what has happened, that is probably not possible in today’s society.

“Kids will know something about this. Even the very young ones are likely to see or hear something,” she said. They also realize their parents are upset.

“It’s important to make yourself available and let kids know it’s OK to talk about it,” Myers-Walls said. Parents should try to help them understand what happened, at least enough so that they don’t have misunderstandings that cause unnecessary fears.

A parent might note that something “scary” happened, and ask the child what they know or have heard. “That gives you a sense of where the child is coming from and if the child is making up something from bits and pieces” of information they have heard.

The parent can correct any misunderstandings, answer questions and address what appears to be most important to the child.

The shooting of children in an elementary school “is something extremely frightening to all of us,” she said. “We need to deal with fears in ways that don’t create new fear.”

It’s important to put everything in perspective for children and help them realize that millions of students went to school Friday and were just fine, she said.

Parents should emphasize that Friday’s tragedy “was a terrible occurrence that was very rare … and very unlikely to happen,” she said. On Monday, children across the country will go to school and they will be OK.

“If we live our lives constantly afraid of this, we won’t live our lives well or fully,” Myers-Walls said. Overreacting and conveying a message there is “constant danger” should be avoided.

Parents need to keep their fears realistic and under control, she said. “They need to realize their fears can be communicated to their children, and if they put things in perspective, children are more likely to put them in perspective.”

In her research, she has found that parents’ perceptions of their children’s level of fear is greater than what the children themselves report.

Also in response to the tragedy, even young children are likely to feel sad that others have been hurt and angry at the violence that occurred. “Children will be concerned for those children [at Sandy Hook Elementary], even if they didn’t know them and the school is half-way across the country,” Myers-Walls said.

Not only should parents reassure them that they are safe, they should “give them a chance to grieve for what has happened,” she said. “Give them ways to take action that helps them feel in control and can result in some positive things coming out of a negative event.”

Families could have their own small memorial service or recognition of what happened. They could send cards to families of the shooting victims or to the Connecticut community where the tragedy happened.

Some people recommend that parents shield their emotions from their children, but she doesn’t agree.

“I think it’s inappropriate to fall apart in front of children,” she said. “But it’s OK to tell your kids you are scared, angry or sad and then talk to them about what you do when you feel that way.”

A parent might respond to such a terrible tragedy by taking a walk, reading a book or telling someone how they feel. By sharing how they respond, parents can teach their children coping strategies.

Some children may not want to talk about the tragedy right away, while others may want to talk about it more than once.

Parents should be prepared if their children want to talk about it a day, a week or even a month later. When they want to talk, “give them as much time as they need,” she said.

Sue Loughlin canbe reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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