Helping Children Deal with the Newtown Tragedy

The senseless and horrible act of violence that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday has consumed the nation. People struggle to find answers. Adults continue to take several opportunities throughout the day to check the Internet for updates, listen to news reports and hear others’ reactions to the information that continues to develop.

“As adults we have a difficult time making any kind of sense of what happened. As parents, we worry what this means for our children — for what they see on TV and computer screens, and what they pick up on from conversations around them,” says Mark Eastburg, PhD, President & CEO, Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.

“What does it mean to parent in a time like this? I have had many community members ask me this question in the wake of Friday’s tragedy. I have asked myself the same questions. There are a few guiding principles I want to highlight when we are searching for how to parent in light of dark events around us,” says Eastburg.

These principles don’t necessarily give us a protocol for how to respond to children’s various needs or fears; however, keeping these in mind can provide an anchor when feeling fearful and anxious.

Tragic events can leave children feeling insecure and unsure of their world.

Children crave security — knowing they are safe and loved. Their developing brains depend on this need being met in order to grow into healthy well-adjusted adults. Adults’ reactions to the shootings affect the children around them. It is important to decide how you want to discuss the events with your children. We can often, without realizing, pass on our own fears to our children.

Children are concrete thinkers.

They cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy. So, images on screen that they see can trigger fears and anxieties each time these images are viewed. If possible, limit screen exposure to ongoing news coverage of the events. Recognize that misinterpretations may occur when children see these images. They may think it is happening over and over again, or has happened in their neighborhood. They may not verbalize this fear. Anxiety and fear shows up in children’s behaviors.

Listen more than talk.

Despite common developmental stage characteristics, each child is unique. Listening to questions and answering concretely and honestly is helpful for children. For example, if your child asks questions about the shootings, instead of trying to shift the subject or provide a lot of details, respond by validating how they are feeling “yes, what happened is scary” and then follow up with a question, such as “tell me more about what you’ve heard.” This can provide you with some direction in how to respond with a truthful assurance, “you are in a safe place now,” or “mom and dad are here to listen to how you are feeling about this.” It also gives you an opportunity to correct misconceptions such as children thinking this happened close to home or will happen to them next time they go to school.

Maintain a predictable routine.

This is important in the face of this unpredictable event. It helps address the anxiety that goes with the new uncertainty in their worldview.

Remember that how adults react affects the children around them. Adults need to process their own fears and anxieties with other adults, out of range of children. Many adults are struggling as well. It is difficult to process, maybe more so for adults, the enormity of the lives that have been forever changed by one person’s actions.

Below are some recommended links that may be helpful:*

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

American Psychological Association

American Psychiatry Association

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Autism Speaks

Special resources to help the families, friends and schools of those with autism spectrum disorders deal with the tragedy

Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress

National Institute of Mental Health

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

However, if an individual is concerned about themselves or a loved one, there are other resources at Pine Rest. To schedule an outpatient counseling appointment, the number is 1-866-852-4001; for questions about inpatient admission or evaluation, the number is (616) 455-9200 or (800) 678-5500.


*Please note: You are leaving the Pine Rest Website when you click on these links.