Child psychology expert: How to talk to your child about tragedy

Posted December 14, 2012
Updated December 15, 2012

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— As news broke of a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school Friday morning, parents in North Carolina and across the country were left with the difficult task of explaining the tragedy to their children.

Duke University professor Ken Dodge, who specializes in children's psychology, says parents should try to talk with their children – but don’t force it, offer it. Once the child wants to talk, parents should try to achieve three things, according to Dodge:

  • Make sure your child feels safe.
  • Make sure there is no sense of guilt. Explain that they are blameless.
  • Empower them by helping them do something, such as sending a letter to those in Connecticut or joining a safety program at their own school.

Children can feel stress and anxiety about situations like the one in Connecticut, even from afar, according to Dodge.

He offered these words for parents to use when talking with their kids: “This horrible thing happened. Things happen in life, but most of the time, we're safe and school is safe. School is one of the safest places in America, and you’re safe my child, you’re safe.”

Dodge suggests opening up the conversation and asking the child how he or she feels and talking about his or her feelings. One of the worst things a parent can do is to ignore a child’s feelings.

"Parents should not be afraid to talk to kids, even if they don't know what to say. In general, talking helps with stress, and talking helps the parent-child relationship," he said. Duke University professor Ken Dodge Full interview: Child psychology expert offers tips on talking to kids about tragedy

Wake County public schools posted a resource for parents on its website Friday, offering tips for how to reassure kids during a crisis.

Wake sheriff: 'We go for that person, we do not wait'

While parents try to console their children, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has been working to prepare schools for unspeakable events like the one in Connecticut. Years ago, he put together a task force to come up with a campus safety report.

“We in law enforcement know this is happening. We do not know all the reasons why,” Cooper said. “We have been working so hard the last decade or so to prepare for this kind of thing. We have made certain that our law enforcement officers in North Carolina are now trained in rapid deployment.”

Cooper's office provides critical incident response kits to schools, which include evacuation plans and blue prints for schools.

The attorney general recalled a time that critical response was needed – in Orange County in 2006. A 22-year-old killed his father and took a gun to a Hillsborough high school, injuring two students.

Cooper talked with one of the two officers who first responded. "The first thing he said to me was the training, 'We were ready. We knew what to do."

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison Wake sheriff: 'We go for that person, we do not wait'

The officers were ready, in part, because of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 in which two teenagers killed 13 people. After that, the approach to school tragedies changed.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison says authorities now go after active shooters instead of waiting for back up. "We go for that person. We do not wait," he said.

Last year, more than a dozen agencies came together to play out, in a drill, what the unthinkable would be like at a Wake County school – what to do if a shooter was inside a school.

"Train, train, train so you will know. Your instincts kick in," Harrison said.

Schools have now have videos to train school staff. They keep kits handy with emergency supplies and have devised ways to communicate with officers on the outside.

Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Frank Till has his own recent history to draw from. Last year, one student was injured during a shooting at Cape Fear High School. Till says it is hard to hear about the many lives lost in Connecticut.

"Your heart breaks because you know students are hurt," he said.


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