As her 7-year-old ate a morning bowl of Cheerios, Amy looked at her daughter and wondered whether to start a conversation about the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 elementary school children and their teacher dead.
It’s a question parents have had to wrestle with time and again as kids are shot to death at their schools. It hits hard for many in Connecticut, where 20 first-graders were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Tuesday’s shooting at Robb Elementary School has brought back memories of the Connecticut shooting for many residents.
Amy, who declined to give her last name out of concern for her daughter, is a member of Moms Demand Action. She joined gun control advocates, Gov. Ned Lamont and other elected officials at a press conference outside the state capitol Wednesday to decry the Texas school shooting.
Ultimately, she decided against talking about it with her child this morning.
“I don’t know how to talk to kids about this,” Amy said, although she knows it’s a conversation that has to happen.
State officials offered reassurances Wednesday about safety protocols at local schools, and experts say honesty is one of the keys when talking to children about tragedies.
“There’s no easy words,” said Gary Steck, the chief executive officer and a marriage and family therapist at Wellmore Behavioral Health in Waterbury. “This is as terrible a tragedy as one can imagine, but we as adults, we have that responsibility [to talk to kids].”
Here’s how experts advise parents or caregivers talk to their kids about the shooting:
Check in with yourself
Steck said parents should first check in with themselves to ensure they’re prepared to have that conversation with their kids. If they need, they can talk with a friend, pastor or mental health professional before talking with children.
“Parents are the first educators, and it’s incredibly important that they be the ones that convey some sense of understanding of this crazy thing that’s happened, this horrific thing that happened,” Steck said.
Parents and guardians will best be able to care for their children if they take care of themselves, experts said.
Start the conversation
Children are likely to have heard about the shooting, either from overhearing conversations, at school or from social media, experts say.
“Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in your child’s mind,” says a publication from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
The conversation can start by asking the child what they already know and gently correcting any misinformation, the network’s document says.
It’s important to listen to what a child has to say and be attentive to their concerns, said Jason Lang, vice president for mental health initiatives at the Child Health and Development Institute.
It may be easier for young children to have a tough conversation if they’re doing something they enjoy such as playing outside, taking a walk or coloring, said Dr. Melissa Santos, a professor of pediatric psychology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
“Those are ways that they can feel safe, to be able to associate it with something that they enjoy doing with you,” Santos said.
Let them ask questions
Children may have questions about what happened in Texas. Experts say you should answer those honestly and directly.
“To interact honestly and simply with a child’s questions and a child’s experiences in the school environment, wherever they are, is really important,” said the Rev. Nada Sellers, a pastor at Rocky Hill Congregational and member of Moms Demand Action.
Sellers has worked with families through times of loss and grief in her role as a pastor. She said kids don’t need to know every detail of a tragedy, particularly if they don’t ask about it.
“But they need to have somebody who cares for them and loves them answer their questions honestly, and clearly and simply,” Sellers said.
Caregivers should also keep an open line of communication and make sure children know they can ask questions later — it’s not just one conversation, experts said.
The amount of information a child needs to know will vary based on their age and between children, Santos said. Parents know their kids best and can gauge what they’re ready to hear, she added.
Lang said parents should also try to limit their kids’ exposure to media about the shooting as more details emerge.
“It can become traumatizing to hear about that again and again,” Lang said.
Let kids know they are loved and that the adults in their lives are doing everything they can to keep them safe, experts said.
This means, in part, reassuring them that they are safe emotionally, Steck said.
“I think that we as adults have to provide the sense of safety for our children and make sure they know we will get through this,” Steck said. “It’s a dark day in our country.”
Kids might also ask questions about whether this is going to happen at their school. This might be something parents struggle to answer, experts said.
But they can remind them that the grown-ups who care about them — their teachers, superintendents and parents — are doing everything they can to keep them safe, Steck said.
“They need to know that they’re loved, that parents and supporters will be there for them, that we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe … the reassurance that nothing’s going to happen to you as much as we can help,” Sellers said.
Some specifics about safety measures, such as door locks, drills or police officers at school, could also help, experts said.
Be a role model
Kids might also be worried about their caregivers; they can see when parents are worried and upset, Steck said.
“It’s just important that families stick together,” he added. “I know how hard this will be for some parents to do, but parents and caregivers are the ones that need to step in to communicate.”
Parents can also tell their children how they’re feeling in age-appropriate ways, Lang said.
“Model that it’s OK to have those feelings, and it’s understandable and that communicating and talking is important even if they’re feeling really sad and scared,” he said.
Watch for long-term effects
Kids might react to the shooting at different times and in different ways, so parents should keep communicating and monitor their kids for long-term mental health effects, experts said.
If they’re having continual symptoms over a longer period of time, parents can seek professional mental health help.
Some of those symptoms include changes in appetite, sleep, behavior, moodiness or excessive worry, Steck said.
In young children, symptoms may manifest in persistent headaches or stomach aches, Santos said.
“I think there’s a balance between continuing to follow up on it and continuing to check in as we learn more about what happened,” Lang said. “You also want to be careful not to ask about it indefinitely … if a child seems like they [are] feeling better or have fewer concerns or questions or anxieties, they look like they’re doing OK, then it may be time to not keep talking about it or asking about it.”
Early on, those symptoms aren’t likely a cause for concern, Lang said.
“For most families, I think they’re going to be fine, and they’re going to be able to navigate this and help their children through this, but for some, this is a more challenging issue,” Steck said.
There are several resources available for parents who are concerned about their kids’ mental health including providers offering trauma treatment, the 211 system and other mental health resources. More information about evidence-based treatment in Connecticut is available online.
What state officials say
Gov. Ned Lamont recalled the experience of telling his own children about 9/11 when asked about what message he might have for kids.
“It starts by telling people we love you,” Lamont said. “We start by telling our kids ‘The people at your school love you, and they’re doing everything they can to make sure you’re safe and give you some comfort there.’”
Commissioner James Rovella, of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, also said that the state has put several measures in place to keep kids safe at school.
The state has spent $70 million on 1,693 projects since 2016 to “harden” schools in several ways, including improved door locks, Rovella said.
He added that since Sandy Hook, communication between nonprofits, houses of worship, schools and law enforcement has improved. Schools now have resource officers on campus, he added.