These guidelines were created by Fretta Reitzes, director of Lillian & Sol Goldman Family Center for Youth & Family, with child development experts and Wonderplay advisors, Dr. Ron Taffel and Dr. Gail Saltz.
For All Parents
• Be mindful and remember that your children take in everything around them. Keep the TV off, print material out of their sight. Be vigilant and do not talk about this tragedy in front of your children.
• It is not necessary for young children to know about this tragedy. Talk with other parents about how they are handling their decision to talk with their children or not. If you are unsure, reach out to professionals in your community and your child’s teacher and school.
• Rest assured that if your children hear something about this, they will ask you questions. Answer their questions and keep your answers simple, direct, and honest.
• Trained professionals are often helpful in meeting with parents and teachers together to provide information about what is age appropriate. They can also be helpful with the healing process.
For Parents Who Will Be Talking with Their Children
• Be in touch with your child's teacher and find out how their school is addressing the issue so that your child is getting the same information at home and in school.
• Think about what you want to say to your child beforehand. Be honest with yourself about what you are not comfortable talking about. This is a way to diminish your own anxiety about this difficult conversation.
• Give your children the time and space to ask their own questions and talk about it from their perspectives.
• Let them express their fears and worries and reassure them that they, and you, are safe.
• Be attentive to their cues about when they don't want to talk about this anymore. Children are good at knowing their own thresholds for hearing about difficult issues.
• It is okay for your children to see you cry as it gives them permission to cry as well.
• If you are uncomfortable with any of their questions, and don't feel prepared to answer, tell them you need to think about it and will talk about it again at a later time (and do so in timely manner).
• Try not to overload your child with too much information.
• Choose a time to talk with your child that is not pressured for you and is open-ended: when you will be around and available; not rushed; not before bed; not when you are taking them to school or going to work. Remember to turn off your cell phones when you are talking with them.
• Children want to know that they, and you, are safe. Reassure them that all the adults in their lives do everything they can to ensure their safety at home, in school, and in their world. Give them concrete examples that they can see and understand.
• Be clear with the other adults in your children's life (such as grandparents, relatives, caregivers, sitters) about what information is okay for them to share with your child, including the choice of language and level of detail. Be clear about what you don't want them to say, as well.
• Be age-appropriate with the information that you share with your children. If you are not sure what is appropriate, reach out to your child’s teachers and professionals in your community.
• Older siblings are most likely ready for more in-depth discussion. Enlist their support and explain that their younger sibling is not ready for more information and may find it distressing. If their younger sibs ask them questions they don't feel they can answer, they should tell them to come to you.
• This is a time for divorced couples to talk together and hopefully agree about what message you want to give your child about this event.
• Some children may express fears about going to school. Issues around separation may resurface. Remember that it is essential for children and parents to keep normal routines in place. Avoid the temptation to keep your child at home. Maintaining normal routines at home and in school is essential.
• Trained professionals can be helpful in meeting with parents and teachers together. This will provide everyone with the same information and can also move the healing process along.
• It may be comforting to come together as a family and perhaps with close friends. You might want to light a candle together, make a special card or draw a picture with your children to send to the Sandy Hook community. The act of doing something together is part of the healing process for children and adults, and there is comfort and a sense of connection that comes from being together in this way.
• If your child is showing signs of anxiety (such as difficulty sleeping, fearful behavior, or loss of appetite), reach out for help and call your pediatrician to start the process.
• Remember that children are resilient. They rely on you for clarity and honesty. The way in which you address this tragedy with your children provides an opportunity to instill your family's values, and sets a moral compass for your children.
• Take care of yourself! As a parent, the stress, worry, and anxiety around this tragedy may become overwhelming. Keep your family routines in place and try to stay connected with others in your community. If you continue to feel anxious, you may want to reach out for help in your local community.
This is a time all of us to remember the value of staying connected with each other as we go through this very challenging experience together.