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A parent's nightmare - school shootings and how to talk to your kids

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The school shooting in Newtown, Conn. has us all asking the same question. Why? Understanding why something of this magnitude happened may help us feel more in control with our own surroundings, but it won't alleviate our children's fears.

Twenty 6 and 7-year-olds were gunned down while they were in a place considered safe and their world. Six adults who represented important people to these children also lost their life. A tragedy beyond our scope of understanding how something like this happens, and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again will be discussed for a long while. As the discussion goes on, we will also see more and more children who were and continue to be emotionally affected by the tragedy. What also bears reminding is the fact that the children who attend Sandy Hook Elementary won't be the only children affected. This tragedy will affect children in every city in every state as they watch their parents watch the happenings of Dec. 14 play out on the news day after day.

This brings us to the talk we have to be prepared to have with our children. How do we talk to our children about what happened, and help them feel safe and reassured that it won't happen to them? This is one of those issues that parents find so difficult. Every parent I know wants their child to be safe in their environment and when something such as a school shooting occurs the parents have little control. Beyond our comprehension is the fact that when random violence happens no one has control. When someone wants to kill, and is prepared to die themselves then the best anyone can do is to protect themselves from the mad man's rage. In this case, the mad man lived and was raised in the community, which shows the extent of his hate that he would strike back at his "own."

It's a busy time of the year, but taking time to help your child process this now will help prevent them suffering emotionally in the future. If you consider this as a process and let it unfold rather than force the conversation, your child will be able to understand or at least feel less fear from it happening to them as time goes on. As a parent your immediate concern is with the safety of your child, and having a plan or something you can do will help both you and your child feel better. I have suggestions below that will help you help your child. If you notice your child being anxious and fearful for more than two weeks consistently, it will be helpful to talk to your pediatrician and perhaps a counselor.

1. Parents are a barometer for their children, and children are skilled with reading their parent's emotions. So, before you talk to your children, make sure you know how you feel about what happened, and if you are anxious or not ready to help your child feel secure, delay talking with them about it.

2. Don't mention the trauma part to your children and don't assume what they are afraid of. Rather, ask them specifically so you won't introduce another possible fear. If they mention they are afraid of the bad man shooting them, validate that by saying it's natural to feel that way, but also tell them you are going to do everything you can to keep them safe.

3. Limit the news in your home regarding the tragedy. Children don't understand the replays and they may be at the level of thinking each time they view the incident it is happening again. The visual parts as well as the audio accounts of the shooting once seen and heard may create anxiety, nightmares, and depression in children.

4. As much as possible, stay on your routine at home. This will give your child stability and reduce anxiety. The holidays have many traditions, keep those alive as much as possible.

5. As a family, draw cards, send letters, and/or bake cookies for the families or people in the community where the shooting occurred, or for someone needing them in your own community. This helps your child see that there are more good people than bad.

6. This is an excellent time to set up an emergency plan in your own home. Go through what you each will do if there is an emergency. This empowers children and helps them feel more in control. Remind them of a time something happened and what they did to help. Also remind them of how proud you were of them.

7. Take extra time at night to read stories, watch movies, or say prayers. This helps kids feel safer and it is also a time when questions come up that parents can use to help understand how their child is processing the tragedy.

8. This is a good time to bring your spiritual beliefs to the forefront. Things such as having a mass said, or lighting a candle, or planting a tree for the children who lost their lives is important. It helps your child see that no matter what happens people do care and they do remember. Spirituality is also important because it gives us strength beyond our human capacity.

9. Listen to your children. Children's brains work differently than adults, and by careful listening you can better ascertain where your child is having a difficult time with the shooting.

10. Grieving with your child will help them heal. Children grieve much differently than adults. Their time frame isn't the same as ours. They may be playing and jumping around one minute, and sitting alone by a tree the next. Grieving in children isn't normal for adults to witness and we want to cheer them up. This is a time to acknowledge when they are sad and then brainstorm with them what they can do (with your help) to feel better. Always identify with trying to do something good with your child for others.

I find comfort in what Mr. Rodgers' mother use to tell him when tragedy struck. She would say, "Look for the helpers. There are always more helpers than bad people." I see this acted out in truth all of the time, in situation after situation. Good in the world must always be more powerful than bad; we all need that right now.

– Mary Jo Rapini

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