WASHINGTON — What do you say to your elementary-school-aged children about the mass slaughter of children at an elementary school? I put this question to Alan E. Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center. He said there are two main principles to keep in mind: comfort and information. People should be ready to respond honestly to their children's question, but at the level they are asked and with the minimum of detail necessary.
If your child has managed to remain oblivious to this horror and has not brought it up, then Kazdin advises that you should not either. You can help keep your child blessedly in the dark by limiting exposure to media coverage. He said after 9/11, child psychologists coined a new term, "secondary terrorism," for the destabilizing experience many young children went through after being exposed to the attacks on an endless television loop.
But if your child has heard, wants to know what happened, or is worried something like this is going to happen at his or her school, Kazdin says to respond honestly but cryptically. Use simple, declarative, age-appropriate sentences, like "Someone came into a school and hurt some children. We don't know why." Then you can comfort your children by saying their school is safe, and that you're confident their school is one of the safest places they can be.
Let's say your child follows up with, "But how do you know?" Kazdin says to reply, "Because nothing like this ever happened at your school. Or at Mommy or Daddy's school."
He says a touch or a hug can convey comfort more powerfully than words. But he also says you don't want to reassure out of proportion to your usual behavior — your kids can pick up when you're acting oddly. Sticking to family ritual is also important. Once the questions have been answered, parents should take the conversational lead and shift into something more normal: "Hey, it's almost dinner time. I need you to help me set the table." Keeping up the usual routine tells your kids all is still right in their world.