How to talk to kids about school shootings

December 17, 2012 12:51:56 PM PST
Parents should talk to their children about the deadly school shooting in Connecticut, but limit their exposure to media coverage, according to pediatricians.

"I don't know what do you? Tell them that there are sick people out there. And we do our best as parents to protect our kids. You think you send them to school and that they are going to be safe," Jennifer Striklen said.

"To randomly kill children, how broken can you be to do that?" Dr. Eitan Schwarz, Northwestern University psychiatrist, said. Dr. Schwarz led the team of mental health professionals who helped children and teachers in Winnetka after Laurie Dann went on a shooting spree at Hubbard Woods School in 1988.

"I'd never heard of a school shooting. We never heard of it," Schwarz said. "This was the first shooting where actually someone went into the school with a gun with the intent of hurting and killing people."

At that time, there was little research on children with post-traumatic stress disorder and no blueprint for how to treat them. Some kids became withdrawn while others couldn't sleep or eat. Parents, too, were left shaken.

"A few weeks after the event, there was a swim meet and the starter gun went off, and half the audience jumped," Dr. Schwarz said.

He said in the wake of the Connecticut shooting, children should be surrounded by loved-ones, and even kept out of school if necessary. Also, their exposure to the tragedy should be limited.

"Shut it down, don't bring it up. Whenever you bring it up, always couple it with the idea that they're safe," Schwarz said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees.

"As in any frightening situation, young children should not be exposed to the extensive media coverage of the event -- in other words, turn off the TV, computer, and other media devices," AAP President Thomas McInerny said a statement.

The AAP has a guide for parents: "Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Even".

Dr. Schwarz also said children my re-enact the tragedy through drawings or role-play games as the shooter in an attempt to understand the situation.

"They can play out the whole scenario and master it and put it away. But it's those kids who don't put it away that are going to have the problems," Schwarz said. "If a kid continues to do that, then they're traumatized."

The AAP guide also tells parents what signs to watch for if a child is experiencing stress and trauma.


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