A few of you have emailed me about ways to “explain” Friday’s tragedy to your children. I emailed those people back, and was going to let this go, but I received a few more emails today about it as people sent their children to school and figured they would hear more about it while they were there, so here are some of my thoughts. Again, I’m not a therapist, these are just my approaches.
I’ve worked in Children’s Ministry and studied philosophy and religion, and if you can explain Friday’s tragedy, please let me know because there’s a nobel peace prize with your name on it. There are no explanations, in my mind, that could ever explain why someone would slaughter sweet children as they sat in their classrooms. There is no possible reason that could ever explain why this happened that would satisfy me. Mental illness? Possibly, but even then, why wasn’t the shooter getting help? Why wasn’t he on medication? Why wasn’t it working? There is an endless string of questions as to why.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for an explanation, all I can do is offer you that from my background, we believe that we live in a fallen world, and because of that, evil things happen. There are concepts in most Western faiths that involve the idea that part of our purpose is to help repair the damage that evil does. Even though I’m Christian, I like the Jewish idea of Tikkun Olam, or that we have a requirement to heal the world through social justice and societal awareness, but your belief system will surely have some answers for you.
Practically speaking, whatever your religion or lack thereof, you can help your child to know that they can continue to move forward. I am a huge believer in reflexive questioning with my kids, so I am not offering information about Sandy Hook to my youngest daughter. When my older two boys ask me about it, I start by asking them what they know, and ensuring that I understand what they are asking me. There is no need to force too much information on a child who isn’t seeking it, in my opinion. For example, when my six year old asked me what happened at the school in Connecticut (thanks to the NFL for that one) I asked him what he knew, and he told me “something bad”. I told him yes, that it was something bad, and that people were working to make sure it never happened again. That was enough information for him. When my nine year old asked the same question and got the same response, he wanted to know if anyone died, and when I told him yes, he wanted to know how many people. A few hours later, he had put together in his mind that people died at a school and asked me the terrifying question of whether or not children had died, too.
With my own children, I am emphasizing the following:
1) They are surrounded by people who love them and want to keep them safe. Parents, teachers, counselors, coaches, babysitters, daycare providers, all of them want to help them to thrive and be safe in whatever setting they interact with them.
2) When bad things happen, we are able to learn about how to prevent them from happening again, and people are responding to this crisis with legislation, increased police presence, and increased vigilance about school policies.
3) Part of our faith is to respond to evil with goodness, and we can come up with practical ways to help the families in Newton. I think that developing a reaction plan helps children to feel like they are not small and helpless in the wake of what is making many adults, myself included, feel small and helpless. If nothing else, there’s a national sympathy card you can sign online.
4) This isn’t really an emphasis, but if you haven’t already, TURN OFF THE TV. Over the next several days there will be more revealed about the order of the shootings, funerals for children, and I’m sure they’ll dig up whatever reasons the killer listed as his causes. Just turn it off. Remember that “breaking news” can pre-empt your child’s TV show at any time. If you “need” TV, go with DVDs for a few days.
5) Validate that it’s okay to feel whatever your child is feeling about this. Let them know they can talk to you, to their teacher, and to the school counselor about any concerns or misgivings.
6) My kids don’t go to school, but if they did, I would make a point of starting a conversation this afternoon asking if they heard anything at school they want to talk about. Different families will have provided their children with different levels of information, and much like a game of telephone, your child will have a mish-mash of fact and fiction to sort through in their head. Also, find out what the response is at your child’s school by asking the office if the teachers/counseling staff are addressing the issue, and what types of increased security, if any, your child will be seeing today. There may be a letter going home (there frequently is after a major occurrence the school needs to react to) so be sure to check the bottom of your child’s backpack where they’ve crumpled it up for you.
If you need additional ideas or information, the following resources could help. I’ve collected these from facebook, and don’t necessarily endorse them, just sharing so you have as much info as possible:
Dealing with Crisis, from Save the Children
Talking About School Shooting, from Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters
Am I Safe?, Time Magazine
Talking to Children About Disasters, American Academy of Pediatrics
Restoring a Sense of Safety After a Mass Shooting, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology