14 Sep 2014
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Video: How to Talk to Your Kids About the Connecticut School Shooting

Here are some tips from experts and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network on how to address heartbreaking subjects with your children.

Many dinner-table conversations around the U.S. in the coming days will be dominated by the .

What do you do if the ones asking questions about the violence are the people at the table whose feet barely reach the floor, and who will be off to an elementary school of their own come Monday morning?

The world is a complex place, but parents can take measures to reassure kids who have questions about violent or scary events in the news.

Dr. Veronica Chavez, a clinical psychologist specializing in childhood trauma, cautions parents of the dangers of allowing too much exposure to violent images in the news.

"The presentation of symptoms are similar in children who have experienced trauma first-hand," said Chavez. "It's called secondary trauma. The symptoms include regression of behavior like sucking their thumb, wetting the bed, they can’t sleep sleep, affected appetite, overly fearful, they may not want to go to school."

According to Chavez, there are three important things parents can do to help mitigate their child's trauma:

  • Don't feel like you have to talk about the event. If your kids don’t talk about it, you don’t have to.
  • If your child brings it up, it's fine to talk about it briefly, in as age-appropriate terms as you can.
  • Keep the TV-watching to a minimum and monitor the information your kids are receiving.

Most important, said Chavez, if a parent is uneasy, their children will be too.

Dr. Moe Gelbart, executive director of the Thelma McMillen Center at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, said that parents should be "truthful, but age-appropriate truthful."

He recommended "reflective listening," especially when dealing with very young children.

Instead of asking the child what he or she is feeling, Gelbart suggested anticipating the child's emotions and verbalizing those feelings. He said parents of young children shouldn't address the subject unless the child mentions it.

The younger the child, the more important it is to provide a sense of security, according to Gelbart. He also said that parents should hug their children and tell them they love them.

He also said hugging your children and telling them you love them is good advice.

Some kids are more susceptible to secondary trauma than others, said Brenda Bursch, a pediatric psychologist and UCLA professor of clinical psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences.

"Kids who have experienced trauma in their past are more vulnerable," said Bursch. "And younger kids might have a harder time understanding that Connecticut is that far away."

Some kids can be worried about their own safety, said Bursch, and other kids might see it and consider it like the violence they see on TV shows and think nothing of it.

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Tips from Support Networks and Agencies

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides a 24-hour counseling hotline that can be reached by phone at 1-800-985-5990 and by text message (Text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746) "to U.S. residents who are experiencing psychological distress as a result of a natural or man-made disasters, incidents of mass violence or any other disasters." For more information on the hotline, click here. A PDF with advice on talking to children and adolescents who are coping with traumatic stress is attached to this article, and also available here.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers some tips for parents of children who display symptoms of stress as a result of news of the shooting:

1. Learn about the common reactions that children have to traumatic events.

2. Consult a qualified mental health professional if your child’s distress continues for several weeks. Ask your child’s school for an appropriate referral.

3. Assure your child of his or her safety at home and at school. Talk with him or her about what you’ve done to make him or her safe at home and what the school is doing to keep students safe.

4. Reassure your child that he or she is not responsible. Children may blame themselves for events, even those completely out of their control.

5. Allow your child to express his or her fears and fantasies verbally or through play. That is a normal part of the recovery process.

6. Maintain regular home and school routines to support the process of recovery, but make sure your child continues going to school and stays in school.

7. Be patient. There is no correct timetable for healing. Some children will recover quickly. Other children recover more slowly. Try not to push him or her to “just get over it,” and let him or her know that he or she should not feel guilty or bad about any of his or her feelings.


– City News Service contributed to this report.

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