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Charly Haley and Helmut Schmidt, Forum staff writers, Published December 14 2012

A few pointers when talking to children about tragedy

FARGO – Protecting your kids is a natural instinct for parents.

But tragedies such as the mass shooting Friday that left 27 dead – including 20 students – at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., are so unnerving that instincts may offer little guidance to parents hoping to help children deal with the emotional aftermath.

Several local counselors weighed in Friday on how parents can help children navigate the reactions the shooting may prompt.

Monitor your reactions

Ron Schneider, a counselor for the Fargo School District, said parents need to monitor their own reactions to the tragedy because children take their cues from parents.

“(Parents are) going to have to try and keep their own emotions in check. If they get over-reactive, their children will be,” he said.

Scott Matheson, student assistance counselor coordinator for Moorhead High School, echoed the need for adults to monitor their reactions around children.

“No matter what age, hearing news of traumatic events shakes us all up, but we have to monitor our own reactions first, as adults,” he said.

Be reassuring

No matter what, it’s important for parents and school counselors to assure their children that schools are safe and that adults and teachers will handle any concerns, said Linda Fisher, the West Fargo School District’s counselor coordinator.

“Just to try and make them feel as safe as possible, and try not to worry them needlessly,” Fisher said.

Schneider said parents should let their kids know that the Connecticut school shootings are an unusual occurrence.

John Lyon, a counselor at the Village Family Service Center in Fargo, said it is important to relay that the chances of a tragedy like Friday’s happening here is “vanishingly small.”

Schneider suggested monitoring TV time because children shouldn’t spend long stretches of time watching news coverage of the shootings. He said counselors learned after the 9/11 attacks that “some kids overloaded on TV.”

Let them talk

Matheson said parents should reassure their children that the sadness and fear they feel is normal and won’t last.

“Normalize their reaction as much as possible,” he said.

Schneider said if children are confused or sad, it’s best to let them talk about it and ask questions.

“I think it’s important for kids to kind of ask the questions and get some feedback from the parents and get back to being kids,” he said.

When answering these questions, Lyon said it’s important for parents to pay attention to what kids want to know.

With teenagers, he said, parents can be fairly direct and answer questions with a more logical approach, but younger children may be satisfied with simpler answers that just reassure their safety.

Parents have to meet children where they are at developmentally, Matheson said.

Lyon added that parents probably shouldn’t even tell preschool age children about the tragedy unless already know and have questions.

Stick to routine

Schneider suggests parents stick with family schedules and routines.

“Don’t change the whole supper and evening plans and park in front of the TV and watch what’s going on,” he said.

Instead, he said to make sure children eat healthy food, get enough sleep and play.

Get help if needed

Schneider said if a child fixates on the tragedy, then parents should let their teacher and school counselor know when they return to school Monday.

“Maybe we can help them figure out the whole course of action,” Schneider said.

Matheson said the Moorhead School District is preparing materials with tips to help parents, and is preparing its counselors to deal with students who may have questions about the Connecticut shooting.

Fischer said counselors in West Fargo will talk with children who are very anxious one-on-one.

The emotions of many West Fargo students are still raw after the deaths last week of three high school students, she said.

“It’s just been a tough couple weeks. But kids are resilient,” Fisher said. “Most kids are resilient enough that they’ll bounce back and go about their day.”

Staff and parents should know that children can visit the counselors in each of the schools at any time if they feel bothered by what occurred Friday.

In the meantime, “let them know we love them and are keeping them safe,” Fisher said.

Readers can reach Forum reporters Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583 and Charly Haley at (701) 235-7311.

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