The staff of Prevention Educators joins the nation in mourning the senseless deaths of 20 children and 6 school staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School and like you, we are asking “Why?” We know there are no easy answers and we also know how hard it has been to talk with children about this tragedy. Youth today are sometimes confronted with a dark picture of humanity, and because information can be delivered to them instantly, they often do not hear about incidents like Sandy Hook from the caring adults in their lives first. But youth are also highly resilient and they recover and adapt in ways that serve as an example to us adults.
We’ve been talking since Friday with teachers and parents about how much information to give youth about the school shooting. Unfortunately over the years, we’ve had enough similar talks to create an entire workshop for educators and parents on the topic of talking tough topics with children. In this training, we explore the issues parents and educators struggle to find words to express to kids in today’s world: school violence, child abuse, rape and sexual assault, war…(remember when the “talk” that was the toughest was about sex?).
We hope you will find these tips useful in continuing to talk with kids in the coming days about this difficult subject.
1. Don’t assume kids don’t know.
Children are very aware of the environment around them and are often more knowledgeable than adults think they are. If they don’t hear about a problem or issue from adults, they will hear it from one another, from the Internet or other media. Not talking about tough subjects doesn’t protect children from them. If you remain silent, you communicate to children that a subject is taboo and that they can’t come to you with their questions or problems.
2. Be available and “askable.”
Let youth know that your classroom or home is an open environment and that it is okay to talk about unpleasant topics or subjects. Your willingness to be available and respond to children’s questions lets them know that you are trustworthy of their feelings and needs.
3. Initiate conversations.
Not all children are comfortable coming to adults with their questions and concerns, even though we may want them to. That’s why it’s perfectly okay – and even necessary sometimes – to initiate the discussions ourselves. It’s likely that school administrators have already identified how they would like staff to address the shootings at Sandy Hook today. Parents, if you’ve been hesitant to talk with your child, it may be helpful to check in with the child to see what, if anything, he or she already knows about what happened.
4. Set ground rules.
Teachers, if you’re going to have discussions on difficult subject with an entire class, be sure to set some ground rules first. Ask students to listen respectfully to each other, without interruption. Remind them it’s important to value the views of others, even if they don’t agree with them. Tell them its okay to criticize ideas, but not people. Help them to avoid blame and speculation, and be sure to confront inflammatory language (pointing out why the language is inflammatory and offering suggestions on how else a student can express his or herself.) Elementary school teachers may be providing limited information to youth about the Sandy Hook school violence but high school teachers may need to address the issue in classes if students are already talking about it. As our nation debates gun control and mental health policy, it may be especially necessary to remind our students and ourselves to be respectful and considerate of others’ opinions.
5. Set limits.
Although it’s important to address tough topics in class or at home, it’s also important to set boundaries and limits on these conversations. You don’t want these conversations to take you too far away from your lesson plans or create lots of anxiety in your children at home, but you don’t want to ignore kids’ needs either. Therefore, it can be helpful to set aside protected time to talk about problems or current events. For example, you can tell students that you are going to take the next 20 minutes to talk about their concerns related to news about the school shooting, and then, if anyone still needs to talk later, they can seek you or their guidance counselor out after school. However, in cases of a crisis this severe, it’s also important to give more time than normal to allow for sharing for feelings and processing of the event.
6. Actively listen.
It can be difficult for adults to really, truly listen to young people. We tend to want to interrupt, to hurry up and finish their sentences. Or to interject our own beliefs or tell them what they should do about the situation. Listening is one of the most important skills you can bring to these discussions. As you listen, show that you are interested and attentive. Ask children to be more concrete by using a variety of questions, such as “I can tell that you feel strongly about this, tell me more what you think about…” or “How long have you been feeling this way…?” Good listening also involves paying careful attention to what young people may not be saying. Be aware of their nonverbal messages – facial expressions, fidgeting, gestures, tone of voice, etc., which indicate that strong emotions may be present. For example, my seven-year-old didn’t want to talk much about the school violence at Sandy Hook after we explained to her what had happened, but she has been carrying around her class picture at bedtime tonight, naming all the students in it as if to reassure herself of their presence and safety.
When you listen to children, it’s important to hear their opinions and perspectives, before you interject. In order to understand how children experience an event or issue, you must be open to hear all they have to say. Myths and misconceptions often go hand-in-hand with talk of tough subjects, and it’s important to clear them up, but first you must know what they are.
8. Get the facts.
Before you initiate discussions about a tough topic, be sure that you have taken the time to educate yourself on the subject. You want to be sure that you are not contributing to your youths’ misconceptions or confusion. If you are like me, you may be limiting yourself to media coverage about Sandy Hook because it is so difficult to hear. If you don’t know the answer or If you don’t feel particularly comfortable dealing with a certain situation (such as school violence, bullying, or suicide), consider bringing in a guest speaker who has expertise in the area (making sure that the conversations with youth are age-appropriate). But be prepared for the questions that will follow once a speaker leaves your school.
9. Set youth straight with accurate, age-appropriate information.
Honesty is essential, but it must be accurate and age-appropriate. Trying to talk to a seven-year-old about a school shooting, using words like “tragedy” and “massacre” is going to undermine the child’s understanding and may cause additional fear. Keep your language simple, use short words, and straightforward explanations.
10. Acknowledge fears.
When dealing with difficult issues (and even more so when coping with the severity of the violence this week), children may experience either general anxiety or specific fears. Some children may be afraid that the same thing will happen to them or someone they love. It may be especially difficult when random violence like this occurs for even adults to feel safe, but we must…. (see #11)
11. Reassure youth of their safety.
After acknowledging fears, let children know that their families and communities love them and will protect them from everything they can, however, no one can keep all bad things from happening to children. Tell your students and children they’re welcome to talk to you whenever they need to. If a child’s fears are becoming overwhelming and interfering with his/her ability to function in school or at home, referrals to professional counseling may be necessary.
12. Look for feelings beyond fear.
Don’t stop at reassuring youth of their safety. Talking about tough topics can cause children to experience a myriad of other feelings or emotions besides fear. Support the development of this emotional expression with caring and empathy. Remember that these discussions will likely need to occur more than once and in the coming days and weeks, reassurance of safety will need to be reiterated again and again to children.
13. Like Mister Rogers said, “Look for the Helpers.”
One way to reassure children that there is good in the world, especially when confronted with such atrocious acts of violence, is to “look for the helpers.” Help youth identify who in your school or community are helpers: police, teachers, fire fighters, counselors.
If there are youth helpers in your school or neighborhood, especially point them out. Children need to know what is or could be done to protect them before violence or trauma, during, and after. It can be especially empowering to know that even the youngest members of our society want to help and provide comfort. When we talked about the school shooting with our daughter, we identified who the helpers were, we talked generally about the bravery of the teachers and how many children’s lives were saved, and we talked about who she could go to if she needed to talk to anyone about her feelings.
Please contact us if you need help in answering youth’s questions or if you would like training for your community group or school on working with youth after a trauma or teaching tough topics. We’ll be back with more tips later this week including how to further empower children by taking action in your community. Thank you all for the work you do to protect and care for our children.