Life is precious. And at times like this, when our nation is mourning the loss of 20 innocent young lives along with the lives of six adults who were trying to shield the little ones from harm, that deeply-held belief comes more prominently into focus. As we recover from the shock and anguish of what has happened, we realize that as teachers, parents, and community members, we must help our children understand this tragedy in ways that are appropriate to their ages and developmental needs. Insightful tips from and interviews with psychologists have been omnipresent over the past few days and have been wonderful sources of information.
Now that the initial information has been handled, the most significant question becomes, “How do we continue to help our children?” The following are a few thoughts that might prove helpful over the next few weeks.
First, it is so important for us to remain calm and reassuring for our children. They need to know that they can turn to us for support, with questions, and for strength. When children of all ages know that the significant adults in their lives are trustworthy and tell them the truth, then they know that they can make sense of their world.
It is also extremely important to listen to what your children are saying and be sure to hear the feeling behind it. Some of the youngest ones will remain (and should remain) blissfully unaware of the events in Newtown, Connecticut, until they are older. But if even they ask a question, just give them a concrete, simple, direct answer that is appropriate to their age. Older children, including teen-agers, need to know that their feelings of sadness, anger, or concern are being heard. Paying attention to their feelings and validating them helps them to bring a little bit more control back into their world, which is a necessary for their continued growth.
Be Aware of Subtle Changes in Behavior
Lastly, as with any situation that could cause a child stress or anxiety over time, be on the watch for any changes in a child’s behavior. For example, if a child has trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, experiences difficulty concentrating on normal tasks, or suddenly seems more withdrawn or aggressive, these will sometimes be the signals of an internal stressor that they have not been able to communicate verbally. Helping them to communicate their feelings becomes central to their well-being and to their learning the resiliency skills necessary to cope with life.
Doing everything that we can to make sure that our children grow up emotionally healthy is one of the most significant responsibilities that we have as adults. When they do, they know how to act in emotionally healthy ways, including motivating themselves, being able to empathize, and, perhaps most importantly, being able to hope—a quality that we all need, especially in difficult times.
Sue Dagenais, M.Ed. is the director of counseling and learning services at Sanford School in Hockessin, having joined the faculty in 1986.