Editor’s note: Michael. P. Brannon, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-director of the Institute for Behavioral Sciences and the Law.
There is no easy answer for this one: How do you speak to your children about a horrible tragedy like the Connecticut school shooting, where so many innocent children and adults died?
How do you tell the young survivors of this horrific event that they will be OK in the future and not have to worry about such a terrifying event ever happening again? Can't we just ignore the terror of it all, let time heal the wounds, and go back into our protective bubble of safety again?
Do we really have to talk about all of this with our children, see them cry and be afraid again, and be reminded of the pain of our neighbors? Can't we just be happy that our children are safe and leave it to others to make sure that our kids will be safe in the future?
No. We must address this one: head on, directly, unflinchingly.
Our world has changed for good now. We can no longer feel invincible to harm when we are at the movie theater, on our job, at a concert, in the grocery store, or at a sporting event. Even worse, we can no longer feel that our children are in a "no danger zone" when they are away from us in school or at summer camp. We can believe that we live in the greatest country in the world as much as we want, but it won't keep us or our children any safer or stop troubled individuals from engaging in atrocities.
So, what do we do? How do we help our children cope with these new realities? First of all, we must address our own disbelief and get our own anxieties under control. Then we need to spend time with our kids -- talk to them if they want, don't talk to them if they don’t want -- but spend time with them.
If they do want to talk, keep in mind their age and how much information they might be able to handle. Understand that they may act younger than their age out of fear and uncertainty. Know that they may cry or become afraid all of a sudden without being able to explain the reason(s) to you.
If they were directly exposed to the violence in Connecticut, make sure you consult with a mental health professional. Go with your kids. Make them feel safe. Reassure them. Connect them with other family members and friends. Tell them about your own feelings and how you worry about them and how painful this is for you, too.
Teach them compassion for others less fortunate in this time of tragedy and model for them a sense of responsibility for others. Tell them that violence is never a good thing and teach them tolerance and understanding. Stop exposing them to violent images in the media. Teach them to respect themselves and others.
Assure them that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe but that they have to do their part, too. They have to do exactly what they are told in emergency situations. They have to report anything that anyone says about harming themselves or others, even if they think that they aren't serious. They have to stand firm against those who bully, tease, and threaten others. Most of all, they have to be willing to reject violence and intimidation in their world and encourage others to do the same.
Teach them to take pride in addressing this very frightening problem with you and other concerned citizens in your neighborhood and country.