Talking about tragedy: Helping youth cope with events at Conn. school -- Gazette.Net


Related story: Area schools beef up security following Conn. shooting

In the wake of Friday’s shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, schools in the Washington, D.C.-metro area have responded by having counselors on hand to talk with children about the tragedy.

Janet Shipman, the Frederick County Public Schools coordinator for counseling and student, support said children could have a hard time digesting the news of the tragic events in Connecticut.

“We as adults are having a hard time wrapping our heads around this,” she said.

The best thing for parents to do is to make sure they have dealt with their own emotions before talking to children about the shooting, which claimed 20 students and six staff members. If a parent is calm, he or she will be less likely to give in to emotions and more likely to stick to the facts, Shipman said.

“Give honest feedback without sharing the gory details,” she said.

It may also help to limit children’s exposure to television and other media to prevent them from hearing some of the more disturbing details of the shooting, Shipman said. Parents should also reassure children that they are safe and that teachers and school staff are doing everything in their power to protect them, she added.

Most importantly, parents should ensure that children continue with their regular routine, Shipman said.

“A normal, consistent routine is important to children,” she said.

In addition to having counselors available to support students and staff, Montgomery County Public Schools also posted information for parents about how to talk to children about violent events such as this one on its website, at

Denise Watterson, bereavement coordinator at the Hospice of Frederick County, said that parents should err on the side of honesty and talk to their children about the tragedy in Connecticut before they hear about it elsewhere.

“It is always better to err on the side of being prepared,” said Watterson, who has certification in thanatology and has worked in death and bereavement counseling for eight years

“This has been everywhere,” she said. “To think that your child is not going to be exposed to it is not really realistic.”

But when parents address the issue, they have to make sure they do it in the right way. Much like talking about sex, parents should provide age-appropriate information and avoid euphemisms, Watterson said.

For example, a parent of child in elementary school can say that a bad man in Connecticut shot the children.

“You have to err on the side of honesty,” she said. “With children, the more you leave to the imagination, the worse it can be. You need to be definite but you don’t need to provide the gory details.”

The next step for parents should be to emphasize to children that they are safe and their parents and other adults in their lives are looking out for them, she said. Parents should also explain that this is a horrible thing that does not happen that often.

Parents should also look for signs that a child is internalizing fears or concerns related to the tragedy, Watterson said.

It could be anything from nightmares, unusual tantrums or changes in eating habits.

“It is just looking for behavior that is not normal for that child,” she said. “ ... You want them to hear what you want them to hear.”