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Updated Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 12:46 AM

How to talk to your kids about the tragedy

By Linda Shaw
Seattle Times education reporter

Children need reassurance after hearing about any traumatic event, from earthquakes to terrorist attacks. The school shootings in Connecticut on Friday, however, will require even closer attention by parents because children will naturally think this type of tragedy is even more likely to happen to them.

How can parents help children and teenagers cope with the news?

Here are some tips from a number of experts, including James Mazza, director of school psychology at the University of Washington; Dr. Bob Hilt, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Seattle Children's hospital; and Tom Delaney, a retired trainer and crisis intervention and prevention specialist in the Lake Washington School District.

• Take care of yourself first. Children soak up their parents' emotions, so while it's fine to express sadness, parents should avoid modeling panicky, stressful behaviors.

"Express your feelings appropriately," said Delaney, "but you don't want to be trying to engage with your children when you may be upset."

• Be proactive. Don't assume your child hasn't heard about what happened. Ask young children, in very general terms, if they've heard that a man did some not-very-nice things at a school in another state.

Psychologists and other experts differ on whether you should tell children about frightening events if they haven't heard about them. Some say parents don't want children to find out first from peers. But others also caution not to go overboard with information. If they do, "kids who wouldn't have a hard time start having a hard time," Hilt said.

• If you do talk about the event, provide honest, nonsensational and reassuring information. For young children, keep information very simple, in words they can understand, acknowledging that bad things sometimes happen, but are very rare.

Because young children tend to personalize everything, they need reassurance that what they've seen or heard about isn't going to happen to them.

"We need to make sure children understand this is a very unusual situation and that this person wasn't a regular person," said Mazza. "In their world, adults are safe people. We don't want to shatter that because of one person's mental health or bad behavior."

It might help to talk about what their school does to keep students safe. Parents also could mention that Seattle police are patrolling their schools extra carefully. Maintaining regular routines helps, too.

• Monitor what children see and read. Young children in particular sometimes confuse a replay of a traumatic event with a new one. Research also has shown that children who see images of a disaster over and over, such as the collapse of the twin towers in New York City, can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, even if they live far away.

• Monitor children's reactions and feelings, even weeks from now. Some children will express anxiety right away, but others might not.

• Use conversations about Connecticut as an opportunity to remind children to share their feelings when they are sad, with either parents or another trusted adult.

"The message is that asking for help should not be frowned upon, should not be considered weak," said Mazza.

• Seek help if needed. Most children can handle bad news without a major reaction. But if they have nightmares for more than a day or two, or tantrums, or continue to double-check the doors each night, they may need professional help in getting past their fears.

• Ask whether your children know their schools' safety plan, and make sure the school has one, says Mazza. Under Washington state law, schools must conduct one safety-related drill each month. At least six fire drills are required during the school year.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359

For help

Parents concerned that their children are having ongoing adverse reaction to this or other events, help is available.

One good place to start is the King County Crisis Clinic Hotline at 206-461-3222 or 1-866-427-4747. In Snohomish County, call 1-800-584-3578. Teenagers who want to talk with teenagers can call Teen Link from 6-10 p.m. at 206-461-4922.

For more information

National Association of School Psychologists:

Seattle Children's hospital:



Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

The Fred Rogers Company:


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