Newtown Tragedy: What Should Parents Tell Their Children?

Last week's tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has left many parents wondering how to explain the senseless act of violence to their young children. Local psychologists Dr. Stacia Bjarnason and Dr. Debra Nelson provide some insight.

When an event such as the tragedy at Newtown occurs, it is both impossible to understand and impossible to stop thinking about. Schools should be safe and teachers and children should never, ever be targets. We can all have a wide range of reactions including disbelief, anger, sadness, hopelessness, and even relief about the safety of loved ones. Just when we might be feeling overwhelmed with powerful emotions, we may need to help children or teenagers cope with their feelings as well. There is nothing easy or simple about explaining something so heartbreakingly tragic. It is understandable for us to have strong feelings too, or to feel at a loss for words. Struggling to find a way to talk about it or not being sure how to help does not mean we are inadequate; it is simply not something we are prepared to do. It is hard to know where to begin.  

There are some basic things that are likely to help everyone. We have to be kind and patient with ourselves. = We should acknowledge our own feelings, deal with them constructively and find support if we need it. It is important to maintain our routines to the degree possible, even if some of the things we do temporarily seem meaningless or trivial. Television and media coverage viewing need to be limited, both for you and for your children. While it helps to feel connected to a community of other people who care about what happened, too much exposure can be harmful and overwhelming. Parents should be reassuring and calm. Be truthful when children ask about what happened, but do not go into too much detail or overload them. Within these general guidelines, there are some specific things that are likely to help children and adolescents based upon their developmental level.

Infants and Toddlers:

While the events in Newtown are beyond their ability to understand, they are deeply attuned to us, and they will probably know that things don’t feel the same. They may respond with increased fussiness, less regular sleep, irritability and clinginess. They can’t necessarily talk about it, but they may need additional support and comfort. If sleep is an issue, and being aware of safety issues for infants, you can offer a soft blanket, stuffed animal or article of your clothing (such as a sleep shirt) for your child to hold while falling asleep.

Preschoolers and Kindergarteners
It will be important to stress that they are safe and that they will be okay.  We all know that preschoolers are famous for asking “Why? Why? Why?”  This time is no different, except that it is even harder to answer. We really don’t know sometimes and it is okay not to have all the answers. While preschoolers are trying to make sense of their world, they may have a lot of misconceptions about death, shootings, violence or many of the stories they hear on the news. They may ask questions that seem especially gross or morbid, like about physical changes to the bodies or burial practices. Preschoolers need a very simple, truthful version of the story, without too many details. Most children this age have no prior experience with loss or death and may not understand that it is a permanent state. They may make comments like that they want to play with those children or bring them toys, or they may not seem “appropriately” sad. To some parents, they may seem insensitive or unfeeling, but this is simply not the case. Children this age still do a lot of magical thinking and may believe that wishing makes something true. Likewise, they may think of it like a television show or cartoon in which the main character is never really dead. They may become more anxious about “bad guys,” want parents to check the locks, or they may ask for extra comfort like a nightlight or teddy bear. Monsters may suddenly become a big issue again. Preschoolers and elementary school children may have a hard time separating and may follow parents around the house, resist going to daycare or especially school and may want parents to stay very close to them. While it is understandable, it is important to maintain routines, while assuring them that they will be safe at school and away from parents. We can acknowledge and validate the feelings that they don’t want to be apart and then talk with them about a plan to make it easier. Sometimes a small transition object given from parent to child, like a special pebble, a charm, a photo or even a piece of yarn as a bracelet can help a child to separate. Sometimes children who feel that things are out of control will try to exert control, and may throw temper tantrums or seem unreasonable. Encouraging them to talk about their feelings and then validating those feelings is an important aspect in feeling safe and understood. Help them to find physical outlets that may give them the movement and release of energy that they need. (Play-Doh, climbing, running, playing chase).

Elementary School Students:

Children at this age are beginning to understand that death is irreversible and will be seeking information to help them make sense of the events that occurred. Due to their level of moral development, children at this age may engage in "crime and punishment" thinking and may express a strong wish for revenge or retribution. You may notice that your child is experiencing more somatic complaints, such as headache or stomachaches. They may express sadness and try to be physically closer than normal to their parents. They may seem more irritable or "bored," fighting more with their siblings and friends. Do not respond to aggression with aggression. Remove your child from the situation and tell him or her that you can see how angry (or scared or frustrated) he or she feels, but that they need other ideas about showing it. Encourage them to draw pictures, or use words to show their feelings. It is also important to encourage children to talk about their feelings, such as "some kids feel really angry about what happened, but other kids just feel sort of sad. Which kid are you more like?" Encouraging your child to do something with you is also helpful, such as having your child read you one of their favorite books, show you how well then can put together a puzzle, cook at meal etc. These activities not only give your child the closeness with you they may be seeking, but helps them to feel masterful and in control, which helps put some order and predictability into their world right now.


Children at this age are beginning to have abstract reasoning skills. They are likely to feel personally vulnerable; they understand that death can happen, not just to others, but to them. Kids at this age are generally very involved with their friendships and may want to spend more time than usual with those friends. This is not a rejection of family, but an intensification of the natural process of separating from parents and becoming individuals. Parents may notice that their child is having symptoms of anxiety, like headaches, generalized worries, increased awareness of and adherence to safety rules, and difficulty with separation. Children at this age are also aware of their powerful intellects and one way in which they feel more capable is by being more critical of your ideas. Try not to take their criticism personally, but do set limits on acceptable ways to express differences of opinions. As a parent, it's important to listen to your child's concerns without dismissing them. Point out ways in which people are trying to help and reassure them that you are being safety conscious without allowing their concerns to curtail your normal activities. Be aware that your children will take their cues from your behavior and how you show your emotions. Help them to feel they can make a difference and allow them to make contributions to helping efforts.

Adolescents to Adults:
Adolescents often have an adult's ability to comprehend the events, but they usually have only limited experience with trauma and loss. As such, they may seem irritable, angry and blaming, or show intense but rapidly changing emotions ranging from indifference to despair. They often experience what is referred to as a 'personal fable' where they believe that they are uniquely affected and that no one else understands their feelings. As a result, they may feel isolated from their families and may seem overly concerned about their own needs and plans, and may want to spend more time connecting with friends.  However, this does not mean that they are selfish or unsympathetic. As a parent, it is important to be watchful for risk taking behaviors in adolescents, for example, driving too fast, having unprotected sex, drug or alcohol use, or pushing limits in other ways. Adolescents can also easily engage in "us/them" thinking and may target other students in school who seem different; just because someone is different doesn't mean they are dangerous. Encourage your child to have empathy towards others and share their thoughts and feelings; ask what their friends are saying about what happened. Be aware that though their feelings are rapidly changing, they are no less sincere. 

As individuals and communities work to piece themselves back together after this horrific tragedy, it's important to remember that everyone goes through their own process with how they experience and deal with trauma. Having patience with others and lending a supportive ear to children, friends and neighbors is one way we can begin to knit ourselves back together. 


Dr. Stacia Bjarnason and Dr. Debra Nelson of Brownstone Psychological Associates, LLC are still in their temporary location at 6 Way Road, Suite 111, Middlefield, 860-349-7070.  They anticipate moving into their new office on Main Street Durham in February. You can learn more about their services at: www.brownstonepsychological.com.


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