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 100.

    Children are different from each others. Some are cold-blooded but some are emotional. Everything should be first measured then given to children. Adults sometimes are exagerating and sometimes on the contrary and all these two unbalanced approach to children hurt them. I think every parent knows his children better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    I read a lot saying "tell the truth" but how do we know what it is? We're presented with a version (usually a version determined by someone with an agenda hence Obama's tears failing to hide his intention to outlaw guns). How often do we read established fact that it's a lone gunman when reports/witnesses often state more than one? Who's right? Tell them what you actually know, nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    When I at the age of 4 and was regularly visiting a lake considered hunted by the Public at mid day,my Mother while remaining unseen undressed me to take rest on water for about half an hour.She dresses me up again so that none knew of my regular to the Lake at mid-day.This is the degree of relationship a Mother is having with Her child.An attack on a child is attack on parents no doubt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I personally would not shelter my children from the truth. The "innocence of childhood" I believe is very much a thing of the past. Although I do not have children myself, I often act as guardian to my younger stepbrothers, and have no qualms about explaining things like profanity, drugs, sexuality and violence should they ask.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    How to explain any tragedy to a child? Man, no idea. But Obama's crocodile tears were sickening given that his administration will have ordered a drone attack killing children not too long beforehand. I would explain that murder is murder no matter which country you're in and that the mass stabbing of children in china is no less a terrible tragedy just because no one in the west cares about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    A child is an outcome of an intense tie between a couple to offer the couple highest degree of enjoyment without knowing much about one's own identity other than the LOVE showered by the Parents to child and accordingly any harm inflicted to the child is directly borne by the concerned parents for taking their wealth away;while the child often remain unaware of it being GOD dwell upon them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    How do you explain it to children?

    I'll be voted down by the frothy mouthed atheists, but the job is a lot easier with words like "heaven" and "afterlife".

    It beats trying to tell children how insignificant they are in a universe that doesn't care about them anyway.

    Disclaimer: I'm not religious, but that's unfortunate for me. I'd take the blue pill. The red one is awful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Just get them playing Call of Duty, so they get desensitized to pain and suffering at an early age, that way they will be able to deal emotionally with these things when they encounter them at such young ages. Thanks to the cultural marxists and establishments such as Hollywood, the world is no longer the rosy little place it was in the 50's. To survive, kids must become awakened at an early age!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Just tell children the truth,
    they are purer in mind than any off us commenting here today, and evil happens all over the world, whether its caused by a madman with a gun or a victim of bombing,
    there is no wrong or right way to say apart from its nasty , bad, or evil and that every human life is special and precious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    You tell them the truth in language they can understand. In this case the truth is we don't know why this happened. Maybe that will come out at some stage but to assume mental illness or attribute motives is plain wrong. What you can say is that this happened in a culture where having guns and using them to resolve arguments is seen as 'good' and have a talk about the rights and wrongs of that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I think FH @81 has got the wrong forum - shame; I thought we might get through a HYS without someone jumping on some other bandwagon. Silly me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    It is easier to explain when the news is over - it is harder to explain when the gunman is still on the loose and the schools are barracaided with the gendarmes are stationed with large guns outside the gates. (As was the case here with the Toulouse gunmun still on the loose),

    However, children can understand and it is always better to explain than to try and hide awful news

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    If you are involved with a school, ask if they have a Critical Incident Management Plan. The thought & training that goes into making one includes preparing to explain a tragic event to the youngsters, & supporting them, their parents & school staff. It may sound ghoulish, & you hope never to need it, but it helps even with 'remote' events like this. Every school should have one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    We live 2 hours away from Newtown. My 14 year old son was greatly upset when he heard the news. I tried to reassure him that millions of kids go to school each day and return home unharmed. And I added that his school has many security measures in place. He was the one that added that there are two police officers at his school-1 inside, 1 out. It's very sad, but we can't let these monsters win.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    54 years ago I was 6 in the US and I was taken to a field, with my mothers 22 and a pumpkin. My father placed it on a stump and had me shoot it. We discussed results, him stressing that if I had shot someone, it would have killed them. I had the same training with knives as did everyone. I never was tempted to hurt anyone with a gun or knife. Children are not taught that guns and knives kill now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Children need to be protected from the harsh realities of life. Certainly a massacre of this magnitude would have deep repercussions on the minds of young vulnerable children. Parents need to be judiciously transparent so that their children are able to cope when gruesome emergencies arise. Teachers have roles too. Parents and teachers should meet regularly so preventive steps are put in place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    @ 4. Kester Tallis:
    "...Our children are so terribly precious."
    And what about children of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Pakistan etc?
    Aren't they precious for their parents and families?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    With so much stuff going on everywhere - drones, landmines, murdered ambassadors, etc etc - why make such a big deal out of this isolated incident? How many hundred children are murdered every day and how many other innocents with them?

    I suppose younger adults do get lulled into a strange sense of false security, no matter how irrational in the context of history and evidence to the contrary..

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I was speaking to my daughter today who did explain the awful news about Newtwon to my 6 year old grandson because it it will come up in conversation and although negative you can't hide children away from the truth. His reaction how silly it was that people are allowed to have guns to kill each other. Enough said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    "How do you explain murder to a child?"

    Easy! Tell your achievements in the Middle East and Asia. Its full of barbaric atrocities and war crimes committed by the civilized world of yours.


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