Family: Tips on helping children cope with violence, tragedy
By Dr. Joseph D. White
The news of the school shooting in Connecticut shocked and saddened our nation. Such a horrific event raises difficult questions for everyone, but children watching news of the disaster may have particular difficulty understanding why and how this could happen. Children come to us because we usually have the answers when they are stuck or confused. But how do we help them process a tragedy like this, particularly when we ourselves struggle with comprehending it? Here are some recommendations for helping children of various ages cope:
Ages 6 and younger: Children this age have limited ability to imagine something happening far away, and they also tend to relate what they see and hear back to themselves. If they have too much detail about the tragedy, they may fear it will happen to them. Limit exposure to the news, and try not to discuss the disaster within earshot. If they have heard about the shooting already, reassure them that you will do everything you can to keep them safe and you trust their teachers to do the same. Tell them that this shooter will never harm anyone again. Include the victims and their families in family prayers.
Ages 7 to 12: Children this age are somewhat better able to process news of the event, but they also need to be protected from the indepth coverage that can sometimes follow such a profound disaster. They will especially be upset by news of children their age (or their sibling’s age) who were involved. Some children this age may also fear that something like this will happen at their school. We cannot promise that it won’t, but we can reassure them that such occurrences are rare and remind them that their school has procedures to keep them safe. If your child’s school is one of many that require guests to be "buzzed in" before the door is unlocked, it might be helpful to point this out as well.
Ages 13-18: Teens will have much more ability to understand and process news reports of the tragedy, and may pose difficult questions about why God would allow such suffering. These are not questions anyone can answer perfectly, but consider the words of Blessed John Paul II, who said, "God is always on the side of the suffering." While we don’t perfectly understand why tragedies like this occur, we know that God was with the children at Sandy Hook Elementary, sitting by their side, holding them in his embrace, and crying with them. You may also encourage your son or daughter to do what he or she can to help by supporting local causes to end violence and especially by praying for the people of Newtown –– that those who are suffering will be comforted and will know God is with them, and that those who have died will be welcomed into God’s kingdom.
As families, let us all remember that God is with us. Now is the time to be vigilant in working together with God to build a culture of life, a civilization of love where every life is respected, nourished and protected, remembering that one day all sadness and all violence will disappear in the perfect light of Christ.
Dr. Joseph White is a writer, editor and consultant to Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic publisher. He is in part-time practice as a clinical child psychologist. Visit his website at www.sharingcatholicfaith.com.