Our national community has experienced another unspeakable incident of mass violence in a school. Yet, as adults, as parents, we must speak about it with our children. We must find the message, the tone and the words to speak about what has happened. Even as we try to make sense of this event, to “process” our feelings, our job is to reassure our children about their own safety and security, to create opportunities for children to discuss their feelings, and to provide information, as we are able to.
Encourage Children to Talk With You
No matter the age of our children, moments like these are essential times to connect and re-connect. Provide a model for talking about difficult and upsetting topics to encourage your children to express their feelings and reactions. It is likely that children will be concerned about their own safety. It is important to validate their feelings and not to minimize their concerns. As appropriate, correct misinformation or provide relevant information without providing graphic details. We suggest that you limit viewing of television coverage of violent events for your children and for yourselves. Sights and sounds can be very powerful and distressing and may remain with us after words have faded.
Remind children that these high-profile situations are not typical occurrences. Schools remain safe places for children. Remind children of safety precautions in your own district as well as district plans in case there is an emergency situation. Review or establish family safety plans, incorporating your children’s suggestions. Allow them to play an active role in the process. Remind children that they should always seek adult assistance if they are concerned about safety.
Take Concerns Seriously
Encourage children to talk to adults if they know of someone’s plan to hurt himself or herself or someone else, or if someone they know lives in a frightening, dangerous or abusive situation Teach children that seeking assistance with these situations is not tattling. It is responsible telling which may protect themselves and others. Too often adults do not act when told of concerns – encourage your child to seek additional help until someone takes their concerns seriously.
Be Honest and Genuine
Understandably, adults may be reluctant to raise these topics. But it is important to discuss them with children. Children who are concerned with safety issues are not free to learn and play. You can begin a conversation by asking what children have heard. Answer their questions, correct misinformation if you can, and be prepared to acknowledge that you do not have all the facts, and cannot fully understand a situation of mass violence. Children look to adults to reassure them about their own safety, so we need to remain calm. But we can share our honest upset and grief about the situation. Above all, be genuine in your responses. Although we focus on the needs of younger children, it is essential that we have these conversations with our older children as well. Find those moments when they are available for conversation and recognize that they may be available for brief but recurring periods of time. Of course, match your language and message to your child’s level of understanding and development.
Children are resilient. With reassurance and keeping to routines, most children will cope successfully with distressing situations. However, if you are concerned about a friend or family member who is experiencing an intense or prolonged reaction, or about your own emotional response, please contact the Mental Health Association of Westchester at 914 345-5900 or e-mail us at