George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Handling Tragedy: How to Talk to Kids About Sandy Hook

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Many parents and teachers are at a loss about what to say and how to reassure their kids after the horrific, "unspeakable" events at Sandy Hook. The right words, especially with younger children, need to blend explanation with reassurance. At this difficult time, you might find that the following words will provide a helpful guide:

You might hear other kids or grown-ups talking about a shooting at a school in Connecticut called Sandy Hook, so I want to explain what happened there. A man shot some kids and grown-ups, and some of them even died. That is very, very sad. When I heard about it, I felt very sad. It makes most people feel sad, scared and mad. Lots of people wonder why somebody would do such a terrible thing. It also makes some kids and grown-ups feel worried that the same thing could happen at their (our) school.
Did you hear about this? Tell me what you have heard or seen.

Some kids may share images they have seen from television or social media, and/or their feelings about what happened. Listen non-judgmentally to everything and take as much time as seems necessary for them to fully air their thoughts and feelings. Use reflective listening as your primary support mechanism. Begin sentences with either of these phrases:

  • "What you are saying is__________"
  • "Sounds like you feel__________"

Resonate to their thoughts and/or feelings in an honest way without making yourself the focus. Try to limit your words to one sentence. For example:

  • "I thought the same thing."
  • "I felt very upset when I first heard about it, and I still feel sad."

Conclude with reassurance. You can reassure in one or more of the following ways:

  • "I am confident that you (we) are safe at our school. Very bad things like that almost never happen at any school, so I am confident that our school is a safe place."
  • "It is very sad that the shooting happened, but bad things like that almost never happen at any school, so I am confident that our school is a safe place."
  • "I went to a lot of schools while I was growing up. So did all of my friends and family. So did almost everybody in the world. That never happened in any of those schools, and your school is just as safe as all of those schools."
  • "I love you more than anything, and I would never let you go to your (our) school if I didn't think it was safe for you (us) to be there."

Finally, after a week or two, you can provide further reassurance by reviewing, in a calm, matter-of-fact way, whatever practiced drills or plans that are already in place. I think it is best to wait, because launching into reviews of safety practices with kids at this moment is more likely to trigger anxiety than it is to provide reassurance.

Was this useful?

Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Rose Duignan's picture
Rose Duignan
Parent and education enthusiast

On PBS Newshour tonight there was a story about a picture and quote from Mr. Rogers that has gone viral related to the Sandy Hook tragedy. Rogers said in the quote that when faced with any tragic incident, his mother told him to look to the helpers, the givers, coming to the aid of those affected by any tragedy, to find hope and belief that humanity is 99.9% good. This is a wise and useful perspective I believe to help children and all of us deal with an overwhelming sadness that ensues after events such as Sandy Hook.

David Truss's picture

I'll start by saying that although I'm an educator, I am not an expert in dealing with grief. I'll also add that I really like your reassurances you suggest.

That said, I'm concerned about your introduction. Before asking students anything you 'lead' with very strong suggestions of what is 'expected':
"That is very, very sad. When I heard about it, I felt very sad. It makes most people feel sad, scared and mad."
You are not at this point explaining what happened but rather explaining what reactions are expected by 'most people'... Which begs the question, "Shouldn't I feel this way too?"

I'm making an assumption here, since this is edutopia, and not a parenting site, that this post is intended for teachers in their classes.

I wrote this: in which I tried to caution against two things, 1. Adults projecting their fears and feelings onto our students (with good, caring intentions); and, 2. Adults over sharing, and speaking to all students about such a powerfully negative event, when some students may actually feel safe and secure UNTIL (well intentioned) adults present the idea that safety should be something they consider.

I think "It makes most people feel sad, scared and mad" can be very validating for an individual student who has expressed one or all of these emotions... But I also believe that to address an entire class with this, could easily be a form of embedded command, instructing students to potentially deal with this event in a more emotional way than they would have or than is necessary.

I suffered through thoughts of 'what if this happened to one of my kids?' It is an aweful feeling just thinking about it! But I don't want my kid unnecessarily thinking, 'What if that happened to me?' Or 'Could this happen to me?' Or any other thoughts that are invited by adults projecting their fears or sadness or anger onto them.

Again, I'm no expert. I just would rather that we don't lump all students together for big therapy sessions when many of them don't need it, and for that group that don't need it, it could actually have negative implications.

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

David Truss - Your point is well taken and I appreciate the thoughtfulness and concern expressed by your comment. I agree that we need to be careful about not projecting our own reactions and planting feelings in our students that didn't previously exist. That said, I think anytime influential adults share their thoughts or feelings with kids about anything, we run the risk of triggering change in them. I think with an event that has the magnitude of Sandy Hook, it borders on the impossible to try to explain the incomprehensible without sharing the range of feelings the vast majority of people have or should have. Just as character education programs in schools attempt to reinforce for most and instill in some kids proper values, shouldn't educators be okay with letting our kids know how most people do or should react to a horrific event? I think with most things, kids are primarily affected by where adults place the emphasis, and as I hope you and other readers agree, my article focuses mainly on ways to reassure kids about how rare the Sandy Hook's are and therefore how unlikely (thank G-d) they are to happen at their school. That needs to be the primary emphasis. I think that those kids aware and/or affected by the events feel validated when educators share information on how most people react while those unaware or unaffected can either stay unaware as some kids will or begin to ask important questions about their world. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts and concerns.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.