Experts offer advice on how to discuss traumatic events with children

Friday, December 14, 2012 | 5:01 p.m. CST; updated 5:23 p.m. CST, Friday, December 14, 2012

COLUMBIA – Protecting children from the harsh reality of traumatic news can be wise, experts at MU advised Friday.

Parents should be mindful of the age and sensitivity of children before sharing news about incidents, such as the mass killing at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

If a child is told, keep the message simple.

In light of the shooting in Connecticut, the Columbia Missourian compiled advice from experts on how parents and adults can talk to children about deeply upsetting events.

“The advice to shield children, especially very young ones, from the news as much as possible is good advice," Jean Ispa, professor and co-chair of MU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, said in an email.

She also suggested reassuring them that this happened far away and that principals and teachers are doing everything they can to keep Columbia schools safe.

“Children under 8 especially cannot really comprehend what happened and [it] will depend a lot on how the adults around them handle things,” she said.

“The advice to help older children think about ways they can help affected families and the ways in which school officials and others are keeping our schools safe is also important.”

Parents need to consider the age of a child and how that affects the level of their understanding, said Gustavo Carlo, Millsap professor of diversity and multicultural studies and director of graduate studies for MU's Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

If parents must talk about disturbing topics, their explanations should be short, concrete and simple to make sure they don’t overwhelm a child, he said.

Parents should also use analogies to help their children understand these situations, like comparing those who died to the death of someone the child knew or perhaps a pet who died.

“You definitely want to be sure that they’re satisfied with whatever response you give to their questions,” he said.

In situations like the Connecticut school shooting, children will feel inclined to go home and ask their parents about it, he said. It's important to make sure the child guides the conversation.

Children are familiar with violence in the media and can understand the concept of a shooting, he said. Where the shooting happened geographically or the reality that someone is permanently gone can be harder for children to grasp.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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