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How to talk to kids about school shooting: controlling your fears, calming theirs

Dec. 14, 2012 at 5:40 PM ET

Young children wait outside Sandy Hook Elementary School after a shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, December 14, 2012. A shooter opened fire at the ele...
MICHELLE MCLOUGHLIN / Reuters
How do you explain? Young children outside Sandy Hook Elementary School, after a shooting there killed seven adults and 18 children.

Parents all across the nation have been struggling for the right words to say to their children about the unthinkable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. How could it have happened? Many may be wondering, how do we send our kids to school next week?  

Psychiatrist and TODAY contributor Dr. Gail Saltz says parents do need to talk to their children about the school shooting because "it's such a huge story, it's better that they hear it from you." 

But most importantly, remain calm. 

"You want to do it in an open-ended calm way, 'this happened,' " Saltz said on TODAY Saturday. "But stay calm, because children take their cues from you. If you’re hysterical, they won’t even hear the information, they’ll hear your emotion. You want to be listening to what they are concerned about."

Be honest, "but don’t over-inform about details."

Over several days, children may return with other questions as they process the event. Saltz offered guidelines for parents:

  • Inform: Explain and stay calm
  • Listen: Let them ask questions.
  • Normalize: Go back to your routine
  • Encourage ways to help
  • Memoralize if close to tragedy. 

On Monday, when it's time to go back to school, don't show anxiety or start school phobias, Saltz said.  "Have them go to school, assure them they are safe."

Story: Newtown pastor: Parents asked about kids' last moments

Earlier, Saltz told TODAY.com:  “As hard as it is in the moment to not generalize, you have to realize that people get struck by lightning multiple times every year and we can’t tell our children not to go out when it is raining. This is unbelievably bizarre. If you go get your child from school you will scare them or make it more difficult to go to school because you are telling them that there is something terribly dangerous there, ” says Saltz.

Story: Dad mourns loss of innocence of Newtown kids

Parents like Bryna Sherr of Harrisburg, Pa., have already started grappling with the question. She was trying to sort out her thoughts before her children got home from school Friday afternoon.

“I think that this is one of the most frightening things a parent can fathom. School is inherently safe in our minds,” says Sherr. “I will talk to my kids about it because I don't think I can shield them from it. I will have to hope that my kids' schools are safe, that's all I CAN do.”

Melanie Whitehead, the mother of 7-year-old twins in Rogers, Ark., says she is in “complete shock.”

“I will definitely talk to my children about it and explain how some people cannot be trusted with guns. I am also thinking about what to say to reassure them of their safety,” she says.

Story: Lives saved by teachers, custodian and even children

President Obama, in his televised remarks about the shooting Friday, also shared his reaction as a parent: "This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter, and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another. But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight, and they need all of us right now."

On the TODAY Moms Facebook page, commenters expressed disbelief and anger.

Shelby Rice says,  “The violence must stop.”

Jennifer Askew Cece writes, “I cannot stand this…It makes you just want to keep your kids home where you know they will be safe."

For Courtney Paige, a mother of a kindergarten-age daughter in Norwalk, Conn., the Sandy Hook tragedy is simply too close to home.

“My first thought was, 'This could happen to me.' This is an elementary school in Connecticut.  The first thing that I thought of was my daughter.  It’s not something distinct and separate from the news.  This is happening here, ” says Paige, who adds that questions raced into her own head when she first heard about the shooting.

“What is the security around my school?  Is it safe enough?  Then my husband reminded me that the security is pretty good, and that when things happen, it’s usually a known element,” says Paige. “How do you protect against things like that?”

 “It reminds me that when she leaves the house, I have no more control.  She’s in school for hours, away from me, and it underscores to me that it’s scary to release the control of your most beloved thing to others.  Especially a kindergartner, and it’s her first year away.  It’s overwhelming.  I’m frightened in a different way now, for her safety,” says Paige.

Another Connecticut mom, Medha Thomas of Westport, Conn., has a daughter in first grade in Ridgefield, Conn. She hasn’t given her daughter all the details, “except that sometimes bad people do bad things.” As her daughter hears more about the shooting on the news or at school, she will provide age-appropriate information.

Dr. Victor Fornari, director of the division of Child/Adolescent Psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y., said to expect that kids will have strong emotional reactions because a shooting in a school represents such a traumatic event.

“Schools are supposed to be safe and nurturing environments for children.  This shatters that belief.  Restoring the sense of security in school will take time,” says Fornari.

He advises parents to take the the lead from kids and avoid sharing everything you know unless they specifically ask you about it.

“If kids aren’t asking about it, I would not bring it up. If they bring it up, inquire what their questions are. The main principle is to minimize their anxiety. Parents need to convey a sense of calm, reassurance and support,” Fornari says.

If your elementary-school-age child worries about his or her school not being a safe place and doesn't want to go back, Fornari suggests a hug.

“I would look at them and say, ‘Look, I understand what you’re asking. I just want to assure you school is a safe place,’“ Fornari suggests.

Parents, he adds, should be mindful of not watching TV news and not talking about the tragedy in earshot of children, to avoid overexposing them to the information.

Some kids may not want to talk about the shootings, and in that case, Fornari says you should respect their wishes.

“Parents need to note there is a wide range of normal reactions, including no reaction. However, some kids will be withdrawn, others might become more clingy, some might be more disobedient. Parents need to be mindful that all of these reactions are normal,” he says.

The real key, Fornari says, is for parents to remain composed and to spend time and listen to their kids. “These events remind us about what is important and offer us an opportunity to count our blessings and not get upset about what’s not important,” he says.

Thomas, the founder of CT Moms Online, a parenting forum with 5,000 members, including some in Newtown, says the website’s private, member-only message boards have been full of talk about the shooting. "They're all posting about safety -- just that we need to be able to keep our kids safe in schools," Thomas said.

"The moms have been going crazy about the safety issue," she said. "It could have been any one of our kids' schools."

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