Newtown shootings: How do you explain murder to a child?

Parents comfort a child in Newtown, Connecticut

The Connecticut school shootings have shocked the world. How should parents explain the massacre to their children?

It's something that all decent people will struggle to make sense of - the killing of 20 pupils and six adults by a gunman at an elementary school.

But around the world, parents have had to explain the inexplicable to their children.

In an age of rolling news, even the most disturbing tragedies can be impossible for all but the very young to escape.

And given that so many victims of the Newtown massacre were six and seven years old, many parents will feel it's important to reassure their own offspring that they are loved and safe.

KJ Dell'Antonia, the lead writer for the New York Times's Motherlode blog, has four children aged between 11 and six.

She judged their age meant it was impossible to shield them from bad news.

"If my kids were three- or four-year-old pre-schoolers I probably wouldn't have done it," says Dell'Antonia, who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire.

A young child points at candles in Newtown, Connecticut

But she felt it was important they learned about the massacre from their mother rather than their classmates, whose accounts might be prone to exaggeration. "I didn't want them to come home and say, 'I heard about this.'"

Dell'Antonia says her approach was to be straightforward and not impose her own reaction on them. "You need to be matter of fact and just answer the questions," she adds.

Talking about it won't traumatise a child, says Richard Meiser-Stedman, a clinical psychologist specialising in childhood trauma.

Children may hear about it and some "thinking it through" is entirely normal for them, he says.

Start Quote

I told them the mean guy was gone and he's not going to hurt us”

End Quote Dominic A Carone Neuropsycholoogist and father of two

"So they might be worried but they might be more worried if they hear about it and no-one talks about it.

"Children do think about these things. Often they want to understand what is going on in the world, and trying to sweep it under the carpet and pretend things aren't happening is unhelpful."

In Syracuse, New York, clinical neuropsychologist Dominic A Carone, 37, took this approach on Saturday morning when he sat down with his son and daughter, aged seven and eight.

As both a professional and a father, he believed it was important that the children learned about the killings at a time and in a manner of his choosing.

"I said something bad had happened at a school on Friday," he says. "There was a man who shot at people in the school and some of them were killed.

"I told them the mean guy was gone and he's not going to hurt us."

He emphasised that the school was far away from where they lived. If their classmates told them anything about the incident and they were not sure if it was true, he reassured them they could always come to mum and dad.

He chose to be minimalist with the details and let the children ask their own questions if they wanted to know more.

"They had a few but not an excessive amount," he says. "I could tell they were comforted."

Afterwards, he hugged them close.

Having this conversation before bedtime would not have been a good idea, Carone believes.

Instead, he told them first thing in the morning, before a day of family activities - going to a restaurant and a basketball game together - which he says displaced the bad news.

"I'm always amazed by kids," he says. "They take things in their stride."

Of course, not all children will react this way. Others may become upset or dwell on the tragedy.

According to Meiser-Stedman, it's important to stress that an event like this is out of the ordinary.

Mourner in Newtown, Connecticut

"Make it clear that what has happened is incredibly extreme, and someone who had a lot of problems did this, but ultimately it is very rare and it is because it is so unusual that it is in the news," he says.

"Parents should be clear and frank, explaining that schools have lots of security measures and they are safe places. But the conversation should be age appropriate, so I wouldn't suggest a one-size-fits-all approach."

In the UK, you could add that it is very difficult to get these guns, says Meiser-Stedman, who is based in Cambridge, England.

Tips for worried children

  • Remember that worrying stories are often in the news because they are rare - they don't happen very often
  • It is incredibly unlikely that what you're reading about or watching might happen near you
  • Discuss the stories with your parents or friends, or chat about it on the Newsround message board. You'll feel better that you're not the only one worried
  • You could also talk to your teacher about it - maybe you could have a class discussion which would help you understand the issue better

Source: Newsround, a BBC children's news programme

Answering the question why? is a more difficult task, he adds, but parents should not be afraid of saying they don't know.

"We don't have all the answers yet [in this case] and as an adult or parent we should be OK with that," he says.

"Mental health problems are very common, so parents should try not to give the impression that anyone with a mental health problem might become a violent killer.

"Rather than saying something like he was mad, which doesn't help, just say this is extremely unusual and the man had lots of problems. I would not second-guess things."

Every child is different. How parents tell their offspring - and, indeed, whether they choose to do so at all - will vary from family to family.

Talking through such a horrifying act will be a difficult task for most parents.

But for many it will be a necessary and important one, too.

Additional reporting by Tom Geoghegan

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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    When I was 4, a local girl the same age was murdered. My parents didn't say anything, I must have picked it up from the news. It was my first encounter with the idea that bad things could happen to a child. It made me scared of the dark for a couple of years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Well, I would tell them, that this did happen in a country, where there's a law unto the man to keep weapons nearly regardless to the age, or mental stage. This law was made a long time ago to protect the conquerers from the native Indian people's fight & right for survival.
    "Who sows wind, harvests storm."

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I agree with comment 11. You tend to dread anything major happening in the world because you then know the media will be all over it like a rash and broadcasting it 24/7. That whips up a frenzy and because facts are few and far between at the onset, unhelpful analysis and assumption can be horrendously dangerous. That's how hysteria could start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @6. Piconvention

    That's prretty sick don't you think?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Kids under 10ish need not know about these sorts of tragedies

    Kids over 10ish just need good supporting parental information

    My boy was 5 at 9/11 ... he found out about it... I just told him the plane crashed which hardly ever happens... he moved on

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I've been turning the TV down everytime it comes on. I'm not sure it needs approaching unless of course it is discussed at school. My Daughter is 6. I hope really that it doesn't come up in conversation at all and she can process these things when she is a little older. She already worries about earthquakes and tsunamis because of the news and we live near London.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Oh I dunno - just tell the truth maybe?
    People flip out occasionally and in the US this can result (as opposed to, say Canada with the same gun laws).
    No justice, just us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Simple. You don't try. Adults don't really understand this sort of incident, so why should kids? Divert the child's attention to something else, switch off the television, anything. This isn't the same as wrapping them in cottonwool. Kid's shouldn't be exposed to this sort of thing, either as a participant or an observer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    whats with the obsession with shielding children from the truth? We never give kids much credit for the intelligence and insight they actually have. Theyre naturally inquisitive and will want to make sense of somet things, other times, they'll ask and then get on with their day because they dont give a stuff.
    Tell them the truth, by christmas eve they'll forget anyway

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I do not envy these Parents, and am thankful that here in the UK the likelihood of anything similar is so remote, it is not worth worrying about.

    Yes, our mentally unstable (or just criminal) people would much rather kill Police officers now.

    As for how do you tell the kids - perhaps if the media didn't have blanket 24/7 coverage of such events most wouldn't need to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Unless they're paedophiles, in which case we light our torches and get our pitchforks out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    'A bad man', NO he is someone who could have been helped and did not realize what he was doing. Teach you children that many if not most people who do bad things are not bad people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Tell them that god moves in mysterious ways..

    Or you could try the truth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I explained this story to my 5 year old daughter on Saturday after she saw it on the news. I've always been honest and truthful with her when she asks questions and was the same again here. She's not stupid and would quickly cotton on to my story not matching the news anyway.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Tell them the truth, why hide them from the horrors of life? Adults have chosen to bring children into this world, they should take some responsibility for informing them they have brought them into a world that is very far from perfect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The elder of my two daughters is the same age as the victims. They realised something was up because when the news broke, I kept hugging them and didn't want to let them out of my sight. I told them about mental illness and that guns are always dangerous, which is why gun laws in the UK are so strict. Our children are so terribly precious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Telling them half truths is irresponsible. They will hear about "bad things" that happen in the world (violence, death, drugs, sex) somewhere else be it on television or at school whether you like it or not. Just be honest about it whilst reminding them that despite all these things they are safe in your care.

    They will appreciate it too, children are not as stupid as most people like to assume.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I do not envy these Parents, and am thankful that here in the UK the likelihood of anything similar is so remote, it is not worth worrying about. (Forgive me Dunblane)

  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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