The Sandy Hook Tragedy: How to Talk to Your Kids

Teresa Kramer, a psychologist at the UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute, is an expert in the psychological effects of trauma.

Teresa Kramer, a psychologist at the UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute, is an expert in the psychological effects of trauma.

Dec. 17, 2012 | The recent shooting in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, has forced many parents to address some difficult questions: Do I need to talk to my child about the catastrophic event or wait until they come to me for help? How much information should I share with my children? What can I do to calm any fears they might have about such an occurrence happening in their own school?

Teresa Kramer, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Psychiatric Research Institute and an expert in the psychological effects of trauma, understands that the graphic images portrayed in the media in recent days can be very upsetting to children.

Very young children may not recognize that coverage of the massacre is simply a repetition of images, not a reoccurring event. For this reason, it may be important to limit your child’s exposure to media coverage of such violent events, Kramer says.

“The more news coverage young children watch of tragic events, the more likely they are to have a negative reaction,” Kramer says. “It’s important to monitor what they are watching, on television and the Internet, and to discuss these stories with them. Be sure to correct any misunderstandings they might have, particularly regarding rumors they might have heard from their friends at school. Make yourself available to discuss your children’s feelings with them; this will help calm any fears they might have about their safety.”

Traumatic events can take many forms, such as physical or sexual assault, motor vehicle accidents, or witnessing domestic violence. In extreme cases, hearing about severely traumatic situations, such as mass shootings, can also be traumatic, said Ben Sigel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at UAMS’ Child Study Center who works with children who are victims of trauma.

“When a child experiences a traumatic event, strong emotional reactions are common, such as feeling very anxious, depressed, withdrawn or irritable. It is also common to have changes in sleeping or eating habits, a loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable, and problems concentrating,” says Sigel. “Children who experience traumatic events also often start to have worries about their safety or that more traumatic events will happen.”

Even though children do not experience traumas described by the news media, such exposure can increase anxiety and depression, particularly in children already vulnerable, such as those who have gone through major losses or who have a history of emotional problems.

Adults should take care around children when talking about events like the Sandy Hook shooting or media coverage, said Kramer, because they may misunderstand what they hear. Instead, make children aware of the positive aspects of media coverage, such as reports of individuals helping those in need and the government’s role in preventing similar outbreaks of violence.

“You may want to watch movies with your children or their favorite TV shows rather than the news,” Kramer says. “And look for family activities that don’t involve television, the radio or the Internet. The younger the child, the less they should be exposed to violent content.”

It’s more difficult to control the amount of exposure teens have to news coverage, with access to stories about such violent outbursts as close as their cell phone. Even young people not closely connected to a disaster can display feelings of fear and anxiety, even worrying about the possibility of a similar event at their own school.

“It’s not uncommon to see children show signs of irritability or anger after such a trauma. They can begin to have trouble eating or sleeping, they may start engaging in harmful habits like drinking or doing drugs,” Kramer says. “Some children may even begin to display physical symptoms, headaches or stomachaches, as a result of increased exposure to stories of death and violence.”

Spending time with your children discussing their feelings is a good way to prevent any further fears, Kramer added. Even admitting that you don’t know all the answers is acceptable. Encourage your children to talk to their teachers about their concerns for safety at school, but try not to have such conversations late at night as they might disturb their sleep.

Limiting a teen’s exposure to social media such as Facebook and Twitter after a violent attack can also be helpful, Kramer says. Social media outlets can trigger fears of attacks and encourage the spreading of rumors. Instead, let your teen know that they can talk to you about their feelings or that they can find another way to temporarily distract themselves. Assure young people that it is not uncommon to have feelings of sadness or anxiety after a traumatic experience like Newtown and that what is most important is that they understand that there are caring adults in their lives who are willing to help them.

A young person who has continued difficulties for a few months after exposure to a violent episode may need the assistance of a trained mental health profession. The Psychiatric Research Institute has several options available to those in need of counseling:

The Walker Family Clinic at PRI sees patients 13 and older. Appointments can be made by calling (501) 526-8200.

The Child Study Center sees patients under the age of 12. Appointments can be made by calling (501) 364-5150.

AR BEST (Arkansas Building Effective Services for Trauma) for Children, a PRI program, was developed to treat children who have been traumatized as well as to educate mental-health professionals on interventions. For more information, visit www.arbest.uams.edu.

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