What to tell your kids about the Sandy Hook massacre

Professor Phil Lazarus is the former chair and founding member of the National Emergency Assistance Team and past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. He and his team and have responded to more than a dozen school shootings. At FIU, he is the program director of the School Psychology Program in the College of Education.

FIU News writer Deborah O’Neil talked with Lazarus about the best way for parents to address the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre with their children.

FIU News:  All over America parents are wondering: How should we talk to our children about the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, if they ask? Do you have some general tips for parents?

Phil Lazarus head size photo for NASPLazarus: After a tragedy such as the shooting at Sandy Hook, children will naturally look to their parents and other adults  for help.

Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives. Therefore, it is important to appear calm and controlled when talking to your children. It is perfectly okay, though, to show emotion.

Let your children know that it is normal to feel angry, upset and sad. Explain that all feelings are acceptable when a tragedy such as this occurs. Children may need help and patience from adults to express their feelings appropriately. Let them talk about their feelings and sort them out as best as possible.

During these times it is especially important to be a good listener. It is a good idea to ask your child what he or she knows about the tragedy before you start an explanation. Then, as necessary, clear up any misunderstandings and clarify the facts.

FIU News: How honest should we be when talking to our kids? As parents, we want to shield our children from the evil in this world. This can be very difficult.

Lazarus: Yes, it can. As parents, my wife and I have struggled with this ourselves. When I grew up, we had one television in the house and it was in the living room. There was no remote control and only four television stations. My parents were in charge of what we watched. During that time, it was easy to shield children from terrible news and protect their sense of innocence and invulnerability. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.

To respond to your question, tell children the truth and answer their queries as honestly as possible. Don’t try to pretend the event has not occurred or that it is not serious. Children are smart. They will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what has happened. It is important to stick with the facts. However, don’t dwell on the scale or scope of the tragedy, particularly with young children.

FIU News: That makes sense. I’m wondering about very young children, how might we tell them about the event — or should we?

Lazarus: For young children, perhaps ages three to five, they might not have heard about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. Therefore, there is no need to tell them about it, especially if you believe they will not hear about the event from other people. We want our children to retain their childhood innocence as long as possible. Also be very careful in monitoring the television and radio.

FIU News: What should we expect when talking to children of different ages? Obviously, we would talk to a teenager differently than we would talk to a first grader.

Lazarus: Of course we would. Early elementary schoolchildren need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change.

Upper elementary and early middle school children may be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. For example, after 9/11, children saw many images of the Twin Towers collapsing. As a result, some children thought that it was happening all over again.

We might find that upper middle school and high school students have strong and varying opinions about the tragic event. They may share concrete suggestions about how to make schools safer and how to prevent mass shootings in society.

FIU News: What about our university students?

Lazarus: I heard recently from a college student who noted that after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, she thought most people felt an overwhelming sense of “what is wrong with the world” and that as more of these tragic acts happen, it is easy to feel like there is no good left in society. As a result of this tragedy, a movement has started called “26 Acts,” and its purpose is to affect change at the smallest levels. The individual commits to doing 26 random acts of kindness, one for each of the innocent lives lost at Sandy Creek Elementary School  last week. This idea has become viral and people are paying it forward everywhere. Though committing to 26 acts may sound daunting, there is no time limit or rules, and even one act can make a difference.

(More information about 26 Acts, including links, can be found at the end of this Q&A.)

FIU News: Do you have any other points to emphasize when speaking with children or adolescents?

Lazarus:  In the aftermath of more than two dozen school shootings that the National Association of School Psychologists  National Emergency Assistance Team has responded to, everyone always wants to know, “Why?” What was happening in the mind of the killer that precipitated this tragedy? What life events helped trigger this mass shooting?  Why did this happen? Could it have been prevented? Senseless violence is hard for anyone to understand and most of the time, we will never know the precise answers to our satisfaction.

Any child who has watched this event on television will have learned that sometimes people do terrible things that hurt, maim or kill others.Let your child know that these people may be suffering from severe mental illness, be delusional, unable to handle their anger, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and that adults are working hard to get these people the help they need to keep them from hurting themselves or others.

Emphasize that your child should tell an adult if they know that someone has a gun in school. Access to guns is one of the leading risk factors for violence. Students can be a good source of hearing of threats. So help them identify who they would tell if they are threatened or if a classmate is threatened.

Also, students can be part of the solution by participating in anti-violence programs at school, learning conflict mediation skills, and seeking help from an adult if a peer is struggling with anger, depression or other emotions they cannot control.

Also, emphasize that a murder at school is a very rare event. The chance of a child being killed in school is less than a one in a million and fewer than 1 percent of all the deaths by violence occur in school — that is 99 percent happen outside of school grounds. Therefore, even though you may be understandably anxious after this horrific event, send your child to school.

FIU News: Any last words?

Lazarus: Remember, this is a good time to hug your child a little tighter and tell them you love them.

 The origin of 26 Acts of Kindness

26 Acts of Kindness slideshow

 26 Acts of Kindness Facebook page