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

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook


More on This Story

In today's Magazine


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    How does one tell a child about what happened in Newtown, CT.? Quite simply by telling him or her that we're now living in a sick society and very little can be done about it. This is happening every where these days, no matter how many gun control laws get passed. People need to inure themselves to this fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    How to explain murder to a child?? Well put your finger randomly on a Palestinian or an Afghan and they would tell you how!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    To highlight a specific incident can frighten children more than saying nothing – it suggests we think there is reason to be alarmed. Should we also mention the children knived in China that same day? Or the nine girls killed in a landmine blast a few days later? Bad things can happen anywhere. If children hear of one and are worried, they will raise it with their parents, if they trust them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    If adults could learn from their mistakes, we wouldn't have to explain such things...

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Hmmm? I think it's best if we wait for the next mass murder before we tell them anything. Oh! And by then this one will be way back on the back burner! GUNS are more important than lives. IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS THEIR RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS! AK47's, pistols that fire multi rounds, rifles that fire multi rounds etc. etc. etc. In fact ANYTHING that will kill fast! Lives? Hmm? Not so much! Lets NOT THIS $!

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Its tragic,
    I think in many ways kids can deal with tragedy or terror better than adults. A childs world is pretty black and white, "goodies and baddies".

    I hope they and the parents (emergency services... well... whole town) can find courage to get through this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    I'm surprised at some of the comments here basically implying kids must be wrapped up in cotton woool & protected from news like the Connecticut murders.

    They're way more resiliant thant you think.

    The media exposes them to more graphic images from around the world on a daily basis to no ill effect.

    Just explain what happened & that humans can be evil.

    Less hand wringing please...

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    A top spokesman for the NRA, the leaders of the House and Senate, and any Supreme Court Justices who have defended the right of anyone to keep and use unregistered weapons need to meet with the victims, survivors and families of the children and teachers in Newtown and explain their roles in allowing this to happen and justify their position to the satisfaction of all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    You think that is difficult? What happens tomorrow when your child asks why the Taliban have just shot 5 nurses in Pakistan who were giving polio vaccinations to save lives.
    (Then ask yourself the hard question as to how the Taliban were allowed to do it!).

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Children are so vulnerable especially when they are confronted by gory scenes. These images are bound to shock to the nth degree. Consequently defenceless, innocent beings need to be protected sensibly at all costs. The shocking actions have to be explained at school and at home with all honesty and transparency. In this way, they come to terms with the real world, learn to cope in the long run.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    I'd tell them that a relatively small number of Americans dying in a preventable massacre is more important news than a war in Syria, Israels massacre in Gaza, Japan and Chinas conflct, the US fiscal cliff and global warming

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Let the child ask the question first.
    Adult pre-emptive answering could trouble the child, rather than make things better. It could be worse and not even pertinent to what the child is questioning.

    Each "incident" is different and has its own range of reasons, probabilities and possibilities.

    Teach a child personal safety from a young age.

    Be compassionate like ALL those affected in Newtown

  • Comment number 68.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Never mind children, adults don't understand it either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    It's necessary to talk to children about the tragedy cause it propagated the entire world so they will end up knowing it wheither we like it or not!Nd that's when parents should prove themselves by finding the right way to do it cause kids are different,so according to their characters the mannar they assimilate the drama will vary.So it's important to make our children aware of omnipresent events

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Be honest.

    People out there do bad things for selfish reasons or for no reason at all.

    In TV/Film where we lie about the reasons people do things. Especially in regards to bullies. We make out it's always some tragedy at home.

    Some bullies live in the lap of luxury, have never suffered and are cruel for their own enjoyment.

    But there are decent people that stand up to them and protect others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    In September 2001 I had just started my first teaching job, & came out of an AS ICT lesson to hear of the first aircraft hitting the Twin Towers. I spent a lot of time comforting distraught 16-year-old young men who were convinced they'd have to leave their studies to go to war.

    Then I went home to celebrate my husband's birthday.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Can we get some new news? I've heard about this for the last 3 days. If kids die in Africa the news doesn't report it. What makes this any more special than kids dying from AIDS and stravation?

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    You need to tell children the truth.

    They need to know that the real world isn't like "Tele Tubby" world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    One cannot imagine it.A child did it against the others during an assembly.When one is a loner,the Brain of the concerned carry forward an unanswered question in one's mind.As and when it is not duly feed to neutralize it,it bound to produce a revolt within the Brain but again as and when we ACT amasses against the ORDER;such a situation is invited within us,with cause unknown to the child.


Page 2 of 5



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.