Newtown, Conn., Elementary School Shooting: Kids React Differently Than Adults

Experts urge parents to shield school-age kids from too much exposure to news.

ByJuju Chang
December 14, 2012, 10:52 PM

Dec. 15, 2012 — -- When even adults are left speechless by traumatic events, it's hard to imagine what's going on in the mind of a child.

Adults often gorge on media images -- trying to glean facts, gain perspective, to make sense out of a senseless event.

But for children, it can have the opposite effect.

After the deadly rampage at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., psychologists and pediatricians are strongly urging parents to shield their school-age children from too much exposure to the news.

"For really young children, they can be confused and think that this is happening over and over and over again," said Jamie Howard, a clinical child psychologist and trauma expert at the Child Mind Institute in New York. "They don't necessarily know that it's on a loop, And that would be really scary.

"For older kids who are around 8, 9, 10, they might sort of be inundated with anxiety and people's fear and people's stress," Howard said, "and it could overwhelm their capacity to cope."

Elementary school is supposed to be a safe, innocent place, but the Sandy Hook shooting shatters that notion for parents.

READ: Officials Seek Motive in School Massacre

CLICK HERE for photos from the shooting scene.

READ: Connecticut Shooter Adam Lanza: 'Obviously Not Well'

If your children are old enough to ask questions, instead of talking to the kids try just listening.

"Start by asking them: What do you know? What are you feeling?" Howard said. "Ask open-ended questions so that you can start from there. A lot of times we think they want to know lots and lots of information that adults want to know. But children don't necessarily have the same questions or have the same needs."

When they do ask questions, parents shouldn't hide their emotions -- but experts warn parents to try not to be overly emotional in front kids because they get their cues from grown-ups.

"We look to grown-ups to interpret situations for us," Howard said. "It's called social referencing. It's what kids do. So we are all sort of being watched. And kids are looking to us to let them know: How should we be reacting to this?"

It's understandable that parents are emotional, but Howard suggests grown-ups should share our sadness and our fears with other adults and not let children eavesdrop on those conversations.

Mental health experts said they've learned a lot from the experience of 9/11.

"A number of children were traumatized who didn't have direct contact with 9/11, but rather watched the media extensively," said Dr. Alan Kazdin, a professor of child psychology at Yale University. "For those children, a term was coined called 'secondary terrorism.' That is to say, some children had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from extensive exposure."

For parents, it's a delicate balancing act calibrated to each child's personality. They might ask themselves: Is my kid anxious? Is she fearful?

"Right now, you are going to see a lot of anger, said ABC News' Dr. Richard Besser, a pediatrician by training. "You are going to see a lot of sadness, a lot of tears.

"But over time," he added, "watch for these kinds of things: Watch for children who are having trouble sleeping or eating, kids who can't focus, who can't go to school, who can't resume their normal activities -- or children who are just obsessed with worrying. All they can think about and talk about is this event. Those kids, you are going to want to get them some special help."

READ: Dr. Richard Besser: What to Tell Your Kids

Parents need to reassure kids repeatedly that they are safe because the images from traumatic events can be haunting. They should explain in concrete terms that police and teachers are working to keep schools safe and that what happened in Newtown, Conn., is a rare event.

That's how adults put things into perspective. They know that the odds are incredibly long that their child's school is going to have such an incident.

And yet, kids might not know that. They are especially prone to what's known as "thinking errors" after trauma, Howard said.

"They are especially prone to what we call magical thinking or associative logic, so [they think that] if it happened in a kindergarten classroom, it will happen in another kindergarten classroom," Howard said. "So parents need to monitor and correct kids' magical thinking."

Several professionals said the best comfort may not be verbal. Instead, as President Obama noted Friday, parental reassurance comes in many forms.

"This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter, and we'll tell them that we love them," Obama said.

There is abundant research, Kazdin said, "from animal research to human research, to research with premature babies, that suggests that touch, the comforting, has strong biological effects on all facets of the organism -- managing stress, comforting. So it's not just a cliche of parenthood. It's wisdom through the ages that now has science behind it."

So when words fail, never underestimate the power of an embrace.

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