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updated: 12/14/2012 9:32 PM

How to help kids cope with news of school shootings

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  • A woman comforts a young girl during a vigil service Friday for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn.

    A woman comforts a young girl during a vigil service Friday for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn.
    Associated Press

  • Video: What should parents tell kids about Newtown?

By Tracy Grant/The Washington Post

What should parents do to help their children cope with the Connecticut school shootings?

"Turn off the television," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. If weekend plans include decorating a Christmas tree, having a play date or attending a holiday concert, those things should go on.

Finkelhor and Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and the author of two books on parenting, warned against parents transferring their anxiety about the shootings to their children. "Don't feel the need to over-share," she advised.

"The reality is, this kind of thing is very, very rare. Schools are the safest place kids can be; much safer than being at home," Finkelhor said. In 2010, the last year for which there are statistics, 17 children were killed in schools in the United States, he said. That accounted for less than 2 percent of all child-related homicides that year, he said.

So what should parents do?

Have a discussion (and this is the important part) if you think your children need it. "Answer their questions, but don't dwell on it," Finkelhor said. Part of any discussion must include telling children "that schools are very, very safe places. . . . Kids need to know that" to calm their concerns, he said.

Don't be afraid not to have a conversation. "I wouldn't go out of my way to talk about this if you don't think your child has heard about and seen something about" it, Finkelhor added. Or, as Mogel put it, parents don't need to "make sure our kids find out the worst about human nature and our society" at an extremely young age.

Do what you would normally do. "Routines are extremely important to kids, especially when there has been any kind of trauma," Mogel said. And don't let them see you upset. Mogel echoes the "turn off the TV" advice, adding: "Don't let kids hear you talking about it all the time." That will only add to their anxiety.

Don't expect children to have a bad reaction. "You don't want to cross-examine your child about how he is feeling about this news," Mogel said. "Have the conversation and then just observe them for any signs of distress."

What are some signs that your child is upset? "For younger kids, you'll see difficulty sleeping, tummy aches, headaches," Mogel said. If your child shows those signs, "then more reassuring discussion is in order," she added.

Talk about bigger topics with older kids. Discussions about "political issues, gun safety and how laws and society protect us" can be a good way for parents and teenagers to have productive conversations about the tragedy, Mogel said.

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