With non-stop cable news highlighting every detail of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut – while simultaneously reviewing every school shooting in recent memory – parents across the nation are struggling with how to discuss the random act of violence with their own school-aged children.
“There isn’t any response that works anymore. ‘That doesn’t happen here’ is long gone,” said Dmitra Smith, the mother of a 12-year-old son. “Of course I told him that it wasn’t going to happen at his school. But the long answer is that I don’t really know that to be true.”
Other Valley parents, particularly those with younger children, choose to keep their minds clear from thoughts of killing sprees. “Children have such a small window of time in their lives to be children and not deal with ugly. I want my children to get every second of this time and not be cheated out of any of it. I don’t think they need to know what happened in Connecticut. I choose for my children to not know,” said Celeste Winders, whose four children range in age from 4 to 18, including a daughter who attends boarding school in Connecticut.
In a letter from Superintendant Louann Carlomagno, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District recommends that parents looking for guidance read the article “Talking to children about violence” from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), which can be found at nasponline.org. It suggests parents begin by reminding their child that they are safe, both at home and at school. NASP also recommends parents limit exposure to news briefs, but says parents should make themselves available if a child has questions or concerns. It also reiterated the important role students can play in safety, by reporting things that make them feel uncomfortable to school officials.
Many parents are also taking the opportunity to discuss social issues, such as mental health and gun control with their children. In his blog, at law-kelly.com, Sonoma attorney John Kelly wrote of telling his 4-year-old about mental illness.
“When she asked me why the flags were at half-staff on Saturday, I started by explaining to her that, just like her stomach might feel bad, or her leg hurt, sometimes our heads get sick, too,” he wrote. “… I then told her that we are all sad because someone got sick like that on Friday. And that the person decided that the only way they could get better was by hurting themselves, and a whole lot of other people, people who are just like her mom, her dad and her, in a small town just like ours. And that we lowered the flags because we are all so sad.”
In the wake of such heartbreak, parents often find themselves challenging the rumor mill that exists on every school campus, where children with limited understanding attempt to rationalize a situation without facts or proper understanding.
“Last week, one of the students lost her father to leukemia but it came home that he died in a plane crash,” said Springs parent Donna Hayes. When it came to discussing Sandy Hook, she and her husband wanted to be proactive with their 10-year-old child. “We wanted Ben to get the facts straight from us before hearing it from other kids.”
NASP recommends parents keep an eye on their children in the aftermath of the school shooting, watching for behavioral changes that may suggest post traumatic stress disorder or other anxiety issues that should be explored with a psychological professional.
But all parents seem to agree that when an act of violence grips the nation, taking the time to make children feel secure and reveling in the light-heartedness that makes them kids is critical to reestablishing normalcy.
“Now is the time to just play with your kids, create with them, enjoy them and protect them …” Winders said. “I don’t want my children living in fear, that’s no way to live. I just want my kids to play and be kids. It’s my job as their mom to make sure they get that.”
Smith added, “All we can do is try to maintain a sense of safety and security for our families. … By this morning he had forgotten about it, the tears were gone and things had pretty much returned to normal. But I don’t think I’ll forget about it for a while.”