We are deeply saddened beyond words about the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, CT. Our hearts and prayers go out to the beautiful children and wonderful adult victims and to their loved ones. The Basnyats have been grieving ever since we learned about this horrific incident on Friday morning and the emotions are raw. Immediately after hearing this saddest news, I emailed our 7 year old son’s school administrator requesting that they send information to all parents on how to talk to their children before the weekend. Shortly afterwards, the school Superintendent sent a mass email providing guidance on this.
As a mental health therapist, I understand the importance of having this important conversation with our children. However, understandably many have strong feelings against having such conversations. Some believe it will only instill unnecessary fear as my husband felt while others feel it is unnecessary altogether, as we did for our 3 year old hard of hearing child. Yet, many want to have this conversation, but simply do not know how to. This post is not to sway the parent one way or another, but to simply share how we talked with our son about it after giving it serious thought on Friday.
We decided to tell him after coming to the conclusion that he will hear about it one way or another in the coming days. For example, just on Thursday, he was sharing with us that one of the older boys on his school bus was telling him that the world would be ending on December 21st. Reportedly, our son told the boy with conviction that this was untrue and impossible. Later at home, he said that he was 99% sure that this would not happen, but there is a 1% chance that some kind of massive bomb can make it happen. Additionally, just a few months back he heard about Joseph Kony (again on the bus), which fueled some anxiety in him. We listened to him, empathized, and comforted him as best as we could. At the end of the day, that is all that any parent can do. This talk need not be perfect nor should the parent feel like they have to have all of the answers to their child’s questions. Ours certainly was not perfect, but it got the job done. Here is how it transpired.
After attuning to our own emotions all day Friday, and shielding him from any television or Internet, we decided to have the talk on Saturday morning. I felt this would give our son time to process and ask any questions he may have before going to school on Monday and presumably hearing it there. In other words, I did not want to have this talk before bedtime on Sunday. We distracted our 3 year old daughter with Dora the Explorer and with hearts pounding sat our son down in another room. It was a brief conversation, but covered all of the basics.
Me: “Honey, your dad and I want to talk about something important with you. Do you have any idea what it may be about?”
Me: “Yesterday, something very terrible and sad happened where someone shot people in a school and several people died. This is not something that happens often, so people will be talking about it everywhere like at your school, tv, and the Internet. This is why we were extra careful about you not using the Internet and watching the tv yesterday. We do not want you to worry or be scared, but it is okay if you are. How do you feel about all of this?”
Son: “I don’t know.”
Husband: “It’s ok to feel scared because we don’t know what is going to happen in the future. It’s unpredictable.” (Mommy the Therapist intervenes here.)
Me: “It’s true that things can get unpredictable sometimes, but we will do everything we can to keep you and your sister safe. There are lots of things we have control over in life, but there are some things we cannot control, but we will do everything within our control to keep us safe ok (he nods). Do you know what you need to do to keep yourself safe in school?”
Son: “Yes, go talk to my teacher.”
Me: “What if your teacher is not there? Is there another adult you trust?”
Son: “I can go to the teacher who is closest to me.” (Good sign, he feels comfortable with all of the teachers.)
Husband: “Do you know our phone numbers?”
Son: “Yes.” (He repeats our home and my husband’s cell number.)
Me: “That’s great! Your school has our numbers too so you don’t have to worry too much about it.”
Husband: “We can put our numbers in your book bag too.”
Me: “Is there any questions you have right now? You can always ask later too.”
Son: “Yes, can I use your iPad now?” (End of conversation...for now).
I would like to add that we never watch news in front of the children and actually manage our own information intake so shielding him from this type of exposure was not an issue, but felt the talk need to be had. The goal of this conversation was to set up an open communication path and take a proactive approach in reducing worry and anxiety, which I felt was appropriate in this case. Now, when he is scheduled to get a shot at the doctor’s, he doesn’t get much advanced notice because this only increases anxiety in my kid. The funny thing about fear/worry/anxiety is that too little or too much information can ignite and fuel it.
Every parent knows their child the best, so they have to do what feels comfortable and appropriate to them. I hope this was helpful to those needing some guidance as this is a tough issue to tackle. I encourage everyone affected by this to first reach out to your family and friends to offer and seek support. If this does not help, and if you or your child is experiencing extreme anxiety or depression, then it would be worthwhile to seek a mental health professional. Like I always say, everyone needs a therapist at some point in their lives!