How parents here can talk to their kids about the Connecticut school shooting

A mother and daughter are reunited at the Sandy Hook firehouse after the shooting at school. Experts advise talking calmly with kids about the event and not at great length.
A mother and daughter are reunited at the Sandy Hook firehouse after the shooting at school. Experts advise talking calmly with kids about the event and not at great length.
Published Dec. 15, 2012

Tampa Bay is 1,200 miles south of the Connecticut town where a man murdered 20 children at an elementary school Friday morning.

Nowadays, though, stories like this only feel far away on maps. They're brought to us every second through our TVs and our cellphones, our radios and our newspapers.

They surround us — and our kids.

Children here will inevitably learn about the killings.

So, when they ask their parents what happened at that school up North, what should parents do? Should they ignore their children? Should they tell them everything? Should they let them stay home from school if they're afraid?

The Tampa Bay Times turned to four local and national experts for answers:

Control yourself

Events like these traumatize parents, too. That's natural and expected. But, experts say, a parent's fear, anger and anxiety can transfer to a child. "I wouldn't lie to my kids about my feelings, but I would try to remain as calm as possible because kids feel your reaction," said New York psychologist and author Lawrence Balter.

Manage the media

"A part of the responsibility is to limit and control the access and exposure to the trauma," said Dr. Mark Cavitt, director of pediatric psychiatry at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. "That's critically important." Friday's massacre will dominate the media in the coming days and weeks. Experts say kids will eventually hear about the shooting, but hours of coverage is unhealthy for them — and adults.

Don't ignore it

"There's a tendency to want to suppress it," said V. Mark Durand, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "Talking about it helps. Not talking about it and trying to hide it doesn't help." Kristin Maier, director for the Child Life Department at All Children's Hospital, said it's also important that parents validate their kids' feelings and assure them that they're safe. "They're going to look to you as a parent," she said, "to find out is everything okay?"

Answer their questions, not yours

"Parents have a tendency to either avoid it or go into more detail than the kid really wants to know," Durand said. "This isn't a discussion for the parent to make them feel better. This is for the children." If your kids don't bring it up, Maier suggested asking a few open-ended questions to gauge how much they know and how concerned they are — "What have you already heard?" and "What questions do you have?" Regardless of what they ask, the answers should be simple and honest.

Some kids need more attention than others

Children who are anxious or who have experienced trauma before may be more vulnerable, Cavitt said. Parents should monitor for changes in their behavior including irritability, anger and sadness. Concerned parents should contact a doctor.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every weekday morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Send them back to school

Kids may be afraid to return, but according to the experts, staying home shouldn't be an option. "It's absolutely imperative," Cavitt said, "that they go back to school." Parents should explain how seldom these shootings occur and that schools are safe places. If kids are especially troubled, parents should inform their guidance counselors or other school officials who can keep an eye on them. Not going back won't make them feel better, Durand said. "It makes them feel safer at home and makes them more likely to want to avoid school," he continued. "It only increases their fear."

Times staff writers Danny Valentine, Curtis Krueger, Letitia Stein and researcher Natalie A. Watson contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at