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Tragedy And Children: What To Discuss


The shooting in Newtown is likely to have an impact on many children who were not physically harmed, including some who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Mental health experts say parents and teachers and other people who spend time with kids need to be prepared to discuss the event. Joining me now to talk about the effect on children is NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton.

And, Jon, first of all, for parents who aren't part of the Newtown community, is this something that mental health professionals think they should necessarily be discussing with a young child?

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: They say not necessarily. I mean, if a child truly doesn't know about what happened, there is really no pressing reason to bring it up. But, of course, a lot of kids already do know what happened. You know, I have a 6-year-old son and he came home from school Friday already knowing about it. So what health professionals say is that parents need to be prepared to talk about the incident.

And the logic here is that by not addressing it, you can actually make it seem more frightening to a child than it already is. And so what the experts say is you should start figuring out what a child knows and start by making sure it's accurate because often what they know is not accurate.

RAZ: So what should they say to a child?

HAMILTON: Well, they say it's important to be honest but also reassuring. So you don't want to transmit your own fears about what happened to the child. And exactly what you should say depends to a large extent on the child's age. So for a preschooler, it may be enough to hold them in your arms and say that the person who did this isn't out there anymore and their school is a safe place.

For an older child, you might want to talk about how schools protect students, how the police respond when a person is threatening children, that sort of thing. There is actually a very helpful government website that has a lot of guidance for parents. It's called the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

RAZ: And are there things that parents can look at for, I mean, signs that a child may be troubled by what they know about what happened?

HAMILTON: There are some things. You need to be careful about reading too much into any one change you think you're seeing in your child. I mean, that said, the signs can include things like being more anxious or withdrawn. A child may start having trouble paying attention or concentrating. Changes in sleep patterns or appetite or behavior. And a young child may even revert to behaviors like thumb-sucking or tantrums that they had left behind. Usually, these things go away in a matter of a few weeks, but if they don't, it may be time to talk to a professional.

RAZ: What about the kids who were at the school in Newtown and survived?

HAMILTON: You know, those kids - and there are hundreds of them, I understand - they are a whole different category. They have experienced a traumatic event and are much more likely to need counseling beyond just talking to their parents. They may have disturbing thoughts or images that won't go away. They may react strongly to things that remind them of the event. And, of course, many of these children will be grieving for friends of theirs who died. I understand that in Newtown, they've actually designated a middle school where kids are going with their parents for help.

RAZ: What do we know about what happens to kids who go through an experience like this?

HAMILTON: On one hand, there's evidence that it can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. I mean, that's extreme, but it does happen. And, of course, we've heard a lot about PTSD from what is done to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it can affect kids too. And there's also evidence that kids who do have PTSD, you know, actually - you can actually see altering in the wiring of their brain, including circuits that are involved in how they react to fear. Now, on the other hand, most children are remarkably resilient. You know, they can experience a terrible thing like this and grow up just fine.

RAZ: That's NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton. Jon, thanks.

HAMILTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.