Talking to Your Children About Tragedy
Parents across the country are still reeling and struggling to find the right words to comfort their children after a gunman forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Friday and shot and killed 20 students and six adults before killing himself.
Dr. Phil McGraw joins ER physician Dr. Travis Stork to help guide parents on how to talk to their children about the news they're watching on television and reading on the Internet, and how to help their children through the grieving process.
Dr. Phil says it's difficult for parents to know what to say because it’s so hard to understand how someone would target so many innocent children, who were all 6 or 7 years old.
“That’s what’s so confounding to parents because when they say, ‘Alright, I’m going to talk to my child about this, I’m going to explain it to them,’ and they say, ‘I don’t have the words to explain it because it doesn’t make sense,’ so how do you explain something to a child that just doesn’t make sense?”
Dr. Phil recounts his phone conversation with a father whose son attends Sandy Hook.
The father picked his son up from the school and pulled into the family's garage. The father said, “My son was scared and said, ‘Daddy, is the gunman here? Is the gunman in the garage?’"
Dr. Phil explains that children don’t put boundaries on tragedies.
“They don’t understand as an adult does that this was an event that had a beginning and an end,” he says. “It’s just there are bad people shooting children, and when you think about it from the child’s perspective, why would they think that the bad men wouldn’t be here too?”
Dr. Phil says that it’s important that children hear about what happened from their parents instead of the television or Internet. Here are his tips for talking to your child about the mass shooting:
• Be honest.
• Be age-appropriate. Children younger than 6 don’t have a construct for death and violence. “If you have a chance for a 4- or 5- or 6-year-old child to not be aware of this, by all means, protect them from it,” Dr. Phil says.
• Don’t overshare. “Listen to the question, and answer it honestly but basically, and let them ask a follow-up so you don’t give too much information,” he says.
• Limit their media exposure. When your children do watch the news, watch it with them. “Find out what their questions are, and answer their question,” Dr. Phil says. “You need to say, 'Look, some people were very unstable; they did some very bad things here, but that’s over and you’re safe.' ... “If a child is going to get information, let’s make sure they get the information from you, and you want to give that information in a familiar setting, at home on the couch, and you want to do it in a very reassuring way. You want to do it with physical contact. Put your hands on them. Put your arm around them where they feel safe, secure with you.”
• Avoid using a whispery tone, which can sound scary. Use your normal voice.
• Don’t use euphemisms. “Say some children lost their lives, they were killed here. But you want to say it in a way that is normal information for them,” Dr. Phil says.
How Children Grieve
Richard's 7-year-old son was evacuated from a classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday.
“From his perspective, there was a noise, something happened, he was evacuated from a classroom and the police came to get him and then I picked him up,” Richard says. “He does know people were harmed because he overheard some conversations, and he does, at this point, now know that two people that he knows did not make it through the tragedy.”
Richard says his son is usually expressive.
“He typically wears his heart on his sleeve,” Richard says. “In this particular case, what I’m seeing, Dr. Phil, is that information is processing slowly. He’ll ask a question now; he’ll be fine for a few minutes and get a little sad, maybe a little bit quieter, and then he’ll ask another question.”
Richard says he’s not sure whether he’ll take his son to the funerals for the children he knows who were killed.
“It’s normally a farewell,” he says. “I don’t know if he could process that, honestly. We might talk through that and see what he feels like, and I might go off of his decision whether or not he wants to go.”
But, Richard says, he’s sure his son will “absolutely” return to school at Sandy Hook.
“It’s a good school system in a relatively safe neighborhood,” he says. “It may sound strange to say that, but I don’t want to take the actions of one individual who did something that’s beyond reason and try to paint of picture of the whole town that way because that’s not the case.”
Richard asks all the parents out there to “take this time to really embrace their children and really appreciate them during this holiday season because they have them.”
Dr. Phil says it’s going to be challenging for young children when they eventually return to school and many of their friends aren’t there.
“There’s going to be a real void there, and when friends are missing, there’s going to be a sense of loss and a sense of loneliness,” Dr. Phil says. “Everything you can do going forward to get him to talk about that, to get him to share with you about that, it’s really cathartic; it really helps them if they can talk to you about it.”
Dr. Phil describes some of the ways that a child might express grief:
• Age regression, such as bed-wetting
“They start getting clingy again with Mom and Dad. They’re just reaffirming that, ‘Hey, I’m OK and you’re going to take care of me,’ so they want to be a little dependent for a while,” Dr. Phil says. “The more you can get them to talk, it’s really cathartic; it just comes out. Then, they’ll generally snap right back and start getting back to normal behavior.”
Dr. Phil explains that parents should become concerned if their children are still showing signs of grieving months later.
“If the child starts to withdraw and isolate, then that really is a problem because things are going to get worse before they get better,” he says.
Parents should be aware if their child starts to lose his or her executive functions, such as memory or impulse control.
“If those start to deteriorate, the child is starting to shut down,” and you should seek professional help.
Can We Prevent Another Attack?
According to a study by the U.S. Secret Service, there were 37 school shootings from 1974 to 2000.
The study found that in most cases the attackers:
• Were males, most between 13 and 18.
• Used guns.
• Acted alone.
• Planned the attack.
• Had suffered a loss and failed to cope with it.
• Had been bullied or felt injured or persecuted by others.
• Had access to weapons and had used them before.
• Chose a specific target ahead of time.
• Had multiple motivations, such as revenge, seeking attention, trying to fix some perceived problem or suicide.
Still, Dr. Phil says, it’s difficult to predict who is likely to carry out such acts or when and where.
But, he said, family members are in the best position to notice changes in a person’s behavior and seek help.
'Not Going to Live in Fear'
Crystal was a student at Columbine High School in 1999 and now has an 18-month-old daughter and is pregnant.
She recalls how she felt in the days after that shooting in which 12 students and a teacher were killed.
“Every time I closed my eyes, I would relive the whole tragedy,” Crystal, who was 16 at the time, says.
Still, she says, “I’m not going to live in fear either; I can’t. I have to allow my children to live and to grow up.”
Dr. Phil asks Dr. Travis about his experience as a first responder dealing with tragedies that involve children.
“The hardest thing that I have to do in my life is to look into a mother’s eyes and tell her that her child has died,” Dr. Travis says. “It never gets easier. I can’t imagine a scenario like this.”
“If a child is dying, you do everything possible to save their life. You never want to give up, and when you lose that child, as a physician, you can’t help but blame yourself a little bit,” he adds.
“A lot of times health care providers, they ignore their own emotional problems,” Dr. Travis says. “This entire community has to figure out a way to heal after this great tragedy.”
'Something Has to Change'
Dr. Phil says mass shootings seem to be getting more frequent, but we’re not getting any better at preventing them from happening.
“You simply can’t blame movies and video games,” he says. “There’s something else serious going on here.
“Something has to change.”
For more information about how to cope with the Sandy Hook school shooting, visit Dr. Phil's website.