Oct. 4, 2006 -- While an Amish community in Pennsylvania mourns the tragic loss of five schoolgirls in the recent schoolhouse shooting, experts warn that parents everywhere must do what they can to help their children cope with such tragedies, which they often learn about for the first time on TV.
"With random acts of violence, especially those that are seen on television, the immediacy of the event can be bewildering to children, and the visual imagery can be haunting," says Dr. Nancy Rappaport, director of school programs at Cambridge Health Alliance and assistant professor psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School.
Two other school shootings shook the nation last week.
On Sept. 30, a 15-year-old student shot and killed the principal of a Wisconsin high school, and on Sept. 27, a gunman killed a girl after taking six students hostage at a Colorado school.
After seeing reports like this on TV, how can parents make their children feel safe again? By talking to them. Some kids may seem OK, but parents should still talk to their children, experts say.
Parents must understand that while children may be profoundly affected by what they see on television and elsewhere in the media, they may not communicate their fears to their parents, says Rappaport.
Children may show their fears in other ways, such as in a reluctance to go to school. Parents need to recognize these signs and start ongoing discussions with their children so these violent events won't continue to interfere with their lives.
Parents should tell their children that events like school shootings are incredibly rare.
"Children have no sense of probability. For an event that's reported in the news, they don't know how often it actually occurs." says Dr. Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist at McClean Hospital and an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Children will see coverage of the events in papers and on TV, so it is important for parents to emphasize the rarity of these events. Parents can limit their children's exposure to newspapers and television so they aren't flooded by the news.
Parents can convey how unusual the events are by telling their children that they don't know anyone who's been involved in something similar, as long as they are honest, says Olds.
Parents can also tell an anecdote about a near-death experience they had as a child, and how they got over the scare of that experience. This can help children understand how to get over a fear instead of avoiding an activity.
After hearing news of such violent acts, children may fear for their own safety. Parents need to acknowledge these fears but give age-appropriate information to their children, says Dr. Judith Cohen, medical director of the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Parents should also let their children know that they will protect them from such a violent act, and parents also need to help their children understand why such a traumatic event occurred, experts say.
This may be difficult at first, since the perpetrator's motives may not be clear in the early reports.
"At the time of the event, children might not know why things happened, but over time, as more information becomes available, they may be able to make meaning of the event," says Cohen.
While parents talk to the children about what's happened, it is important that they help their children maintain stability in their daily lives.
"Routine is the scaffolding of security," says Rappaport.