As news broke of the tragic shootings at Shady Brook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the attention of parents across the country undoubtedly turned first to the safety of their own children -- and then, in many cases, to the family TV to watch the story unfold.
Experts, however, urge following those paternal instincts instead of the barrage of coverage on TV.
"Help kids feel safe," says Tom Olbrich, the disaster response coordinator for the Jefferson Center on Mental Health. "Kids are going to be really scared, frightened, confused ... Reinforcing that sense of safety first and foremost is the best thing parents can do."
Olbrich, a licensed clinical social worker of 14 years, was part of the response team that worked with students after both the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 and the Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis in 2006.
"TV stations like clips of the scene and kids crying ... It’s important to limit how much [kids] see that," Olbrich says. "We don’t want to lie or keep them from the truth, but we don’t want to bombard them with it."
Dr. Joseph Wright, senior vice president of the Child Health Advocacy Institute, says limiting that exposure is all the more important for children given the young age of the victims.
"This is an unprecedented type of event," Wright said.
Wright said he is concerned that children haven’t yet developed the ability to think outside of a concrete framework.
"What they see happening to a child in Connecticut may feel quite directly is a threat to them," he said. "Parents can not assume that their children will even understand what they’re seeing, what they’re hearing, particularly because younger children are not at a stage of cognitive development where they can even process it."
Both Olbrich and Wright stress the importance of parents acting as a filter for information about the tragedy in the days, weeks and months ahead. And while there are no hard and fast rules for how a child will react after a traumatic experience, they say simply being there to listen, answer questions and reassure their safety is of the utmost importance.
One thing Olbrich said struck him about the Columbine shootings was just how long that recovery process can take.
"It’s a difficult process. Kids are going to be scared to go to school for a while," he said. "Parents have to reassure the children about his or her safety, and the school also needs to do that."
At Columbine, they made a point to show students the extra security that had been put into place to make them feel safer.
"With younger children like these elementary school kids, it’s going to be a bigger job," Olbrich said. "Smaller kids seem to tack more on to emotion than logic and reason.
"I feel bad for the whole community in Connecticut. It’s going to take a long time to recover from this. It’s a marathon, not a sprint."
ADVICE FOR PARENTS
Talk it out: "Make an offer right away. Don’t push or press [them] to talk. Say, ‘If you don’t want to talk about it right now, let me know when you’d like to talk about it.’ If the child shuts down, do some general speculation about how they might be feeling. Respect the child’s timeline but let them know you’re available." -- Olbrich
Limit their exposure: "You can always pull the plug. What I recommend to families is the computer screen should live in a place where it can be monitored -- in a family room, in a kitchen. I don’t recommend that young children have an unmonitored screen in their room. I think we can, as parents, do a good job of monitoring and filtering what our kids are seeing." -- Wright
Stay active: "It’s important for them to get active doing something, whether it’s going outside and playing, drawing Š. activities where they’re not focused the whole time on the trauma they’ve been through is really important, even for adults. We have a tendency to isolate things. Some level of distracting activity can be really helpful." -- Olbrich
Observe their behavior: "Some kids may be very emotional, crying. Often you’ll see kids regress a little bit at a time. They may act younger than they are for a while Š Kids are going to react with a lot of emotion and fear and that’s a normal reaction to horrendous circumstances. You don’t want to label or diagnose kids at this point. It’s a normal reaction to very abnormal circumstances Š When it goes on beyond a few weeks, that’s when it’s time to consult with a counselor." -- Olbrich
"Any alterations or changes to a child’s usual patterns -- sleeping, eating, overall temperament -- may be signs that there’s a psychological disturbance going on." -- Wright
Don’t be afraid to ask for help: I would not hesitate to recommend parents reach out to their child health professionals on this, because this is not something that thankfully happens every day. We need to lean on the professionals who are trained in child development to help." -- Wright