As adults, the events that unfolded in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14 is nearly impossible to comprehend.
But somehow, we'll have to to try to make sense of what happened.
For many us with children who may have questions, helping them process what happened may be even more difficult still.
Q.: What should we tell our kids and how do we explain a tragedy such as this? How much discussion is necessary and do we answer all their questions or hold back some?
A.: Understandably, parents want to protect their children from terrifying events, therefore, many parents will be tempted to avoid talking with their children about Friday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that speaking with your children can help them cope and minimize their fears and stress. Regardless of the child's age, it is important to start out with what they already know, so asking them what they've heard and what questions they may have is a good way to start the conversation.
Talking with your child in an age- and developmentally-appropriate way is essential. With young children, remember to use concrete words that help them put things into context — teachers, police officers, school, etc. They also need to hear from parents what is being done to keep them safe in their lives so that a similar tragedy won't happen to them. Older children and adolescents have greater access to information, and could benefit from watching news coverage with parents so that parents can help them process the information they are receiving and answer any questions that they may have.
Q.: In our time as kids, our parents warned us of different dangers but we didn't grow up with the reality of mass shootings being a common occurrence. How do you warn children about the potential dangers out there without terrorizing them?
A.: Instead of focusing on potential dangers which could effectively terrorize children, I would suggest speaking with them about what they can do in the event of an emergency. Talking with them about who to listen to during emergencies, where they should go, and how they can determine if the danger has passed. Helping children and adolescents feel empowered in the face of disaster is a gift that could last a lifetime.
Q.: For parents, how should they cope and not project their fears onto their kids regarding safety and security?
A.: Parents must remember that their children learn how to cope by watching and emulating their parents. If the parents do not talk about the event, or their feelings about it, then the children will learn to not talk about it either. Unfortunately, denial can evolve into incredibly damaging behaviors later in life. Parents must be mindful of how they are interacting with their children around safety and security issues. This may look like talking about things in a calm manner with a normal pace of speech (i.e., do not sound "worked up" while talking about these topics) in a matter-of-fact way. Talking with children about times in their lives when they haven't felt safe, and how they knew it (e.g., feeling in the pit of their stomach, adults behaving oddly, etc) will also encourage them to tune into their own intuition, so that they learn to trust themselves and their ability to create and maintain safety throughout life.
Q.: The shooting has sparked some discussion regarding mental illness. It seems taking pills for some imbalance or disorder has almost become ubiquitous, but I'm curious to hear from you how open are we as a society to discuss the subject of mental illness itself? How much of a stigma is there and if we were more open about it would more people willingly seek help for themselves or loved ones?
A.: The stigma of mental illness is an interesting one, in my opinion, because it touches on sociopolitical issues around culture, ethnicity, and sex. In general, most people have an unconscious belief that experiencing a mental illness indicates a defect — that somehow, people with a mental illness have at least one deficiency (e.g., they're not strong enough to deal with things, they're exaggerating and can't put things in perspective, or they should just snap out of it). Those who do choose to seek help in addressing their mental health are oftentimes afraid to share with loved ones that they are seeing a counselor or taking medication — out of fear for the potential reaction. We do not feel shame around going to the dentist, gym, or doctor, but many people report feeling ashamed to share with others their experience of mental illness.
Members of some cultures, including African-Americans, report that seeing a counselor is definitely not something that they are encouraged to do. Sex can also play a role in who avoids psychotherapy due to stigma. My professional experience leads me to believe that men are not encouraged to identify and vocalize the feelings that many clients bring to therapy, including feeling inept, lonely, disempowered, and wanting to belong. I do believe that open and honest communication about mental health is essential in destigmatizing mental illness. Parents who communicate with their children about tragedies like the one in Newtown, Conn. contribute to a family culture and a culture-at-large in which a person's emotional well-being is appreciated, respected, and supported.