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After Newtown: A Pediatrician-Mom's Response

​As the Monday after the Newtown shootings approached and we readied our children for school, most of us had a little bit of dread in our hearts. I did. There was unease as we returned our children to school.

The few days around the time of the shootings were bewildering. Making sense of the tragedy in Connecticut was a huge challenge, particularly as the details of the shooting simultaneously unfolded alongside the details of the beautiful lost children and educators. There’s little more to say than it was tragic and head-shaking. There is just no sense to what unfolded here in America.

And although there are stories of incredible heroism, we are left mourning and aching. Still.

In my 4+ years using social media at that point, no single topic had ever overrun my channels like the shooting. We were all aghast and terrified, sad and stunned. As President Obama said, “We’re heartbroken.” When I opened the Sunday New York Times after the shooting, I gulped and teared up again— I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the number of 6- and 7-year-olds we’d lost. Especially as one sat next to me at the breakfast table.

The randomness of this event allowed us all to relate to the details of the horror and loss with uncomfortable familiarity.

We can and will work to​ward a safer future for our children. Don’t ease up on yourself or those in your community for action—improved communication, access to mental health, examining gun control—as months unfold. The future keeps coming quickly.

Tips for Children Going Back to School After Tragedies

  • Your child’s school is safe. The fact remains that a horrific shooting or tragedy is an anomaly. Your child’s school is a very safe place to be. Remind yourself, and your children if they ask, that a tragedy is typically an exception. See ​School Safety during Emergencies: What Parents Need to Know​ for information. 
  • Get the information you need to feel safe. Send an e-mail to the principal, your children’s teacher, or fellow parents—perhaps commit to participating in ensuring you have good safety a voice message, sending an e-mail, or joining the community of families wanting to ensure safety as the days unfold will likely ease your fears. Get involved. Write a letter to the President (The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500) or your congressional representative. Action after tragedy is an antidote to anxiety.
  • Take breaks from media reports. Like any overwhelming informational stream, we need to compartmentalize. Our curiosity for details is human. This stems from our compassion for our own children. Yet relentless consumption will only steep anxiety and heartache.
  • Sketch out a plan for today right now. Think about your ideal day. When do you want to hear news updates, or not? If information and news updates about a specific tragedy help you feel secure, incorporate updates into your day. But space them out so that you have blocks of time with no information flow. Close the Facebook window at work; watch the news only for a half hour at a time. Your own stress to any tragedy is very important for your children, too. Check in with your school in the morning and with media at a time when you can deal with it. Otherwise, return to your daily routine as best you can—without the news.
  • Use your support network—your friends, your church or place of worship, your own doctor, or your family—for support during transitions like the days after tragedies. These people want and will listen to you.

Tips for Supporting Children Who Remain Scared

  • First thing—remember you know your children better than anyone. Before you explain anything or offer up further details or explanations you think your children may need, ask what they have heard, what they have learned, and how it makes them feel. Listen long before you speak. However, know that silence isn’t helpful in crises—if your children don’t speak about it, open up the conversation and start talking. Continue to ask open-ended questions this week and beyond.
  • Discuss all of the safety measures you take in your own home and at school to protect your children from harm.
  • Listen for errors in their understandings so that you can help clear up mis-information and misconceptions. This is something we can do really well!
  • If your children don’t know about the tragedy, consider talking with them about it prior to returning to school. It’s likely a segment of their peers will know about the events of a tragedy or shooting, so it’s better for them to hear first about the shooting from you.
  • Keep in mind that age really matters here. Children 8 years and younger really don’t have an accurate understanding of space and time. Seeing footage from a school may confuse them, or they may believe something scary is hap​​pening at their own school. Be really careful when exposing them to any media (TV, printed papers, Internet browsing) that has photos or words they can read.
  • Honesty is best. Answer candidly but refrain from gory details. No young child needs to know the age of children who were murdered in a shooting, for example. No young child needs to know the types of weapons or bullets or even the number of children or teachers who died. But children really do want to know how you feel. Talk about what you do to deal with your own sadness or complicated emotions right now. You don’t have to know why this happened—it’s OK to tell your children you don’t know why a tragedy happened.
  • In the afternoon/evening after school, check in with your children about their day. Ask open-ended questions to see what they’ve learned or how they are feeling. Continue to check in over the weeks. These kinds of upsetting experiences are unfortunately far from over on day number 2.
  • If your child is having a difficult time coping with breaking or tragic news, don’t hesitate to check in with your child’s doctor or nurse practitioner. We are trained to help support children and families who are suffering.

Additional Resources:

Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP
Last Updated
Mama Doc Medicine: Finding Calm and Confidence in Parenting, Child Health, and Work-Life Balance (Copyright © 2014 Wendy Sue Swanson)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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