How to talk to your kids about the US shootings
Chances are your kids have seen clips of the Connecticut school shooting on TV or read about it in the newspaper or online. We look at how you can talk to them about it and help them deal with any fears.
This weekend, 20 children between the ages of five and 10 were shot dead by a gunman in Newtown, a small and picturesque New England community about 95km northeast of New York city. The motive for the US attack is not yet known.
Fiona Ayers, an Auckland psychologist who was a teacher in Dunedin when the Aramoana Massacre took place in 1990 says the best way to speak to your kids about the horrific Connecticut shooting is to "keep it simple".
Ayers has over 20 years experience working with children, initially as a teacher and then as an educational psychologist.
Ayers says the Connecticut shooting brings to mind the experiences she had working as a special needs teacher in Dunedin when David Gray, a 33-year-old unemployed man, began indiscriminately shooting people in the town with a scoped semi-automatic rifle on November 13, 1990. Gray killed 13 people, including four primary school children.
Ayers recalls how some of her students lived in Aramoana at the time of that shooting.
"There were red lights and sirens and things going up and down all night and the kids were unsettled," she says.
She told Essential Mums that she helped her students deal with their fears and concerns by talking about what had happened, answering questions simply and offering lots of reassurance.
"Where I come from, working with kids, the best is to keep it simple if you can. So don't go into great long stories about things," she explains.
"You do need to keep it age-appropriate, so you would deal differently with a three or four-year-old than you would with a 10-year-old or a teenager."
She said after the Aramoana shooting she spent time talking about what happened with her students because they needed to talk it through.
Ayers says she kept it as simple as she could, explaining that the perpetrator wasn't of sound mind and that while there are unfortunately people out there like that, there are services available to help them.
Ayers adds that the best thing Kiwi parents can do is to offer a lot of reassurance that shootings on the scale are incredibly rare and unlikely to happen to them.
"The fact that the United States is a much bigger place than New Zealand, that there are a lot more pressures on people, that sort of argument. Also that there are far fewer guns in New Zealand and tighter controls on them."
"So the chances of someone doing anything like that here are quite remote."
Schools in New Zealand do have lockdown policies and if an intruder were to come to a school in New Zealand, each classroom teacher knows what the procedure is.
"I think schools do have drills for lock down so there is that opportunity for teachers to talk it through with children," she says.
Ayers says listening to your child's concerns, answering questions about what happened as simply as possible without adding in all the details, and reassuring them that they are safe is the best way to help them process what happened without adding any additional trauma.
Limit your kid's exposure
Ayers says that parents should limit their kid's exposure to the continuous news loops about the shooting, especially when the photographs and details of the victims are released.
"It's the same with any big disaster. With 9/11 the exposure was tremendous and I think that had quite a detrimental effect on people," says Ayers.
"The same footage was played again and again and again. I don't think we need that."
Ayers says that while the tragedy is terrible, there have been some positive messages over the weekend.
"Especially when they pulled some of the quotes out of President Obama's speech when he spoke about holding your kids close and telling them you love them," she says.
Handle your own feelings carefully
For some parents, the Connecticut shooting may bring up feelings of fear, or perhaps trigger memories of past traumatic experiences.
"I think it if it is really bothering parents or their kids then they should seek advice," Ayers says.
For smaller kids, if what happened is on their radar, Ayers says it is up to the parents to manage it, rather than for other kids to be support them through it.
"Parents need to show that degree of resilience," she says.
This means that instead of talking about it in front of the kids at your coffee group; wait until they are outside playng or in bed before talking about it with another adult.
"We have this term "awfulising" when we go on about how terrible something is. It doesn't matter what it is about, it's never a good idea to do that around kids, whatever the circumstance.
"If someone asks a question answer it, I wouldn't hush it down - but be aware of how you respond," she says.
If your four year old does ask why the man did what he did, you could admit you don't know why, but you feel sad for the families affected and you are sending them lots of love.
"Again, it depends on the age of the child. For a teenager you would be able to explain that some people suffer from mental illness, that could have contributed to it, but it is important to reassure your children that they are safe," she says.
If your child is experiencing sadness about what happened, doing something symbolic like lighting a candle, or saying a special prayer for the families of the children may help comfort them too.