MADISON, Wis. - The school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 26 not including the shooter, may trigger questions from some children as young as the victims of that crime.
Psychiatrists and counselors have tips for parents who are sitting down their kids for a less-than-comfortable conversation.
Madison College Associate Dean of Counseling Geraldo VilaCruz said reassurance is key. Kids need to feel safe, he said, and parents need to try to boil down the horrific scene at the elementary school to something easy to understand.
"When it does come to a question, you have to answer it," VilaCruz said. "I think as a parent, just keep it simple, keep it short and just reassure them."
VilaCruz said the key is being proactive in your response to a situation like this one.
If you're feeling uneasy, find a way to step back and look at what you can control, he said. That way, there are opportunities to make things safer for you and your family rather than worrying.
VilaCruz added that parents don't need to share all of the tragic details with their kids.
"I think it's important that we're honest and that we say what we need to say to the degree we need to say to the level of the understanding of our child," VilaCruz explained.
Dr. Burton Copeland, a child psychiatrist with Dean Hospital, agrees that moms and dads need to process Friday's events before sitting down with their children and opening up the conversation.
He said no matter how much you fake it, kids will know if you are not handling the situation well.
"The immediate thing that child does to see if they're OK is to look at the adults in their world and say, ‘OK, am I OK?,' and see what the messages are from that," Copeland said.
UW Assistant Professor Karyn Riddle is an expert on violence in the media and children. She said there is no reason to bring up the subject to children less than 6 years old unless they ask.
Riddle stressed that you should not withhold information, but shielding children from the headlines and giving them an extra hug might be good ideas.
"Research shows that really helps them feel better," Riddle said. "With the older kids, that's not going to be enough, because they're going to want to talk about it and they're going to have a lot of questions and you should still comfort them physically, but you'll have some more explaining to do with the older kids."
Riddle also recommends a "cooling off" period where you don't watch TV coverage or look at Internet articles with your children, avoiding the subject until things settle down.
VilaCruz said different children respond to media exposure in different ways, so that's something each individual parent should gauge and make the call on.
The experts agree that maintaining a normal routine is important.
Families should go about their regular activities, including sending their children to school each day.
"Life is so precious, and we really have to pay attention to that, and that's why it's really important to make those connections and to be present with our family and children in the moment now," VilaCruz said.
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