Winter 2012-13
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Restoring Your Child’s Sense of Safety


As the nation grieves the brutal attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., parents are struggling to explain the shootings to their kids and ease their fears.

While there are no easy answers, Dr. Kevin Stark, director of psychology at Dell Children's Medical Center's Texas Child Study Center and professor at UT Austin, offered some advice during a recent interview with Fox 7 News:

How do parents begin to explain this situation?

Start talking to children to reassure them that they're safe, that everything is OK and that they don't really have anything to worry about. You also want to help them express any feelings or fears they may have about what's happened and what they've heard from their friends, on TV or in social media.

When talking to them about their emotions and what they've heard, do it in a developmentally sensitive way. With young children, keep it simple with lots of reassurances. With elementary-aged children, preschoolers and middle schoolers, talk about what their emotions are and when they ask for them, give them the facts, keeping it as simple as possible. With high school students, talk to them more in-depth about it and give them plenty of opportunity to discuss their thoughts about what happened.

Another thing parents should do is return their children to a normal routine quickly, so they'll see that everything is fine and nothing in their lives has changed.

In the future, how will parents know if there's a lingering problem?

Watch for any changes in your child's typical behavior. An example might be if your child is spending more time with you and looks like he or she wants to talk, but really hasn't said anything. If you've noticed that your child's mood has changed or your child seems moody, you might ask what he or she is thinking and feeling.

Children who have had some sort of trauma in the past or who have been exposed to violence may be more likely to have an emotional reaction to this event. In these cases, spend more time with them, helping them process their feelings.

You may also want to monitor what your kids are watching on TV and in social media – what they're hearing and reading, and how they're reacting to it. Then give them the opportunity to share any questions and/or reactions they might have. For younger kids, you might want to minimize the amount of time they watch TV and monitor their access to social media.

How can parents help kids who have anxiety about going back to school?

Start by talking about their fears. You can also reassure them that schools are typically very safe places. Talk about all the safety measures that schools take to keep students safe – e.g., doors are locked and front entrances are monitored by school staff.

Also emphasize that kids can take an active role in keeping themselves safe. Instruct them that it is important to tell a teacher or other adult if they see anything that worries them.

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For additional information about dealing with traumatic situations, see the related story, Coping with Crisis, from the fall 2012 issue of Good Health for Kids. Also see the attached PDF from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress for tips on restoring a sense of safety in the aftermath of a mass shooting.

Psychologist Kevin Stark, PhD, is a full professor at The University of Texas at Austin and co-founder of the Texas Child Study Center. He is recognized internationally as an expert in the treatment of youth depression.

Restoring Your Child's Sense of Safety

Good Health for Kids is produced by Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas.