The horrific tragedy in Connecticut has left us all speechless and shaking our heads in disbelief. How could this have happened? Could anything have been done to stop this mad man? And what can we possibly tell our children…if they ask?
Parents are rendered tongue-tied when it comes to talking to their kids about many different kinds of things—sex, death, God. But when it is a topic that is terrifying and may create fear where none existed previously, then we are dumbstruck, reduced to being mute. This is one of those times. How do you explain a senseless massacre in a Elementary School to your vulnerable child, whether he is 5 or 18?
To start, 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/her. However, if your child comes to you exclaiming, “Did you hear what happened at the elementary school?” your first job is to find out what he knows. Ask him to share what he heard. That way you will know what information you need to address or correct to the best of your ability. After you share the correct information, and your child asks, “Why did he do that?” you can explain something like:
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 may need to add for reassurance:
This doesn’t happen very often at all, most people’s brains work right. But once in a while someone’s mind doesn’t tell him what is and isn’t okay to do. He simply 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.
If your older child, 10 years and older depending upon his maturity, comes to you wanting to talk about it, open up the flood gates and 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. You can’t escape it.
In truth, there are no fool-proof precautions that you can teach your child when it comes to being safe at all times, including when he goes to school. Beyond knowing where the closest exit is and to leave calmly in the event of an emergency.
You need to communicate to your child that the day-to-day world in which we live is actually safe. This heinous event is not the norm, even though knowing about past events like Columbine and Colorado make it seem like tragedy strikes often. This terrible massacre was a singular and highly extraordinary event. While as adults we are painfully aware that these horrific acts are increasing, we need to give reassurance to our children.
The hard part is that you need to believe this too. Your children will pick up on your feelings. Do your best, for them.