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People react at a makeshift memorial near Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a mass shooting took place, in Newtown, Connecticut December 16, 2012. (ERIC THAYER/REUTERS)
People react at a makeshift memorial near Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a mass shooting took place, in Newtown, Connecticut December 16, 2012. (ERIC THAYER/REUTERS)


What to do when children ask why Add to ...

It didn’t take long for the e-mails to start rolling in.

Pamela Gough, a trustee with the Toronto District School Board, was fielding concerns from parents about school safety soon after the shootings Friday in Connecticut.

The Toronto parents, a country away from the tragedy, wondered how to talk to their children about what happened in Newtown, Conn.

“Young children are so very vulnerable,” Ms. Gough said. “We have this sense of the school as being a pocket of security in the community, where children are ultimately very, very safe. When something like this violates that sense of security, parents can feel extremely concerned and frightened for the safety of their children. And that permeates over to the kids themselves.”

Soon after the shooting, experts said the youthful survivors at Sandy Hook Elementary School would require “psychological first aid.” But what about those far removed from the massacre? Children may ask why those kids and grown-ups were shot, and worry that bad guys could hunt them down in their own schools.

On Friday, the Toronto school board sent out guide sheets to all superintendents, principals and vice-principals to help students and staff respond to a “wide range of reactions and emotions ranging from confusion, anger, anxiety, as well as sorrow and fear.” The board also pledged to have “full crisis-response services” of social workers and psychological staff available starting Monday to help staff, children and parents if they are needed.

The Vancouver School Board sent a similar directive on Friday to all school administrators and also advised counsellors to check in with any students who may be “vulnerable or at risk.”

Kurt Heinrich, a spokesman with the Vancouver board, said a similar e-mail was circulated last June when an elementary school was mailed a hand belonging to Montreal university student Lin Jun, whom Luka Magnotta is accused of killing and dismembering. The advice from the board both then and now includes limiting access to television and the Internet and to avoid dwelling on the incident, but to directly address the questions of students.

“Be fact-based, but don’t elaborate when you don’t need to,” Mr. Heinrich said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has prominently posted on its website information for caregivers about how to talk to children about the Connecticut tragedy. It points out that youngsters cope better with disaster if they understand it and know what they can do to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

Peter Nieman, who is a president of the Alberta chapter of that organization, said he plans to ask families how the shooting has impacted them as part of his routine checkups at his Calgary clinic this week. Children could experience behavioural changes – nightmares or fear about sleeping alone – but also physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach pain, he said. He recalled a young patient soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks expressing worry that a set of twin skyscrapers in Calgary would fall down.

“These fears and concerns are very real for the kids,” Dr. Nieman said, “When the kids are that young, they can’t differentiate. … They don’t have the sense of time and distance.”

His advice to parents and teachers is not to dismiss concerns by saying, “No, it will never happen here.”

“That says in a way, you’re inappropriate. You’re overreacting,” Dr. Nieman said.

Instead, remind children of all the positive measures that are in place to protect them, such as strict policies against strangers in schools, less prevalence of guns in Canada, and that with so many schools, and so few incidents, the odds of a terrible thing happening is not very high.

Patrick Baillie, a psychologist with Alberta Health Services and the Calgary Police Service, pointed out that while younger children want to know how this affects them, older kids and teens may want to talk about more difficult topics such as gun laws, suicide and mental health.

“Keeping your emotions in check when talking about those things provides a model of coping,” he said.

Sometimes children want to do something about what happened, and in that case, Dr. Baillie said, consider a memorial such as drawing a picture, planting a tree, or adding a special decoration to the Christmas tree.

Police in Connecticut declined to talk about motive on Sunday, but that may not stop children – and adults – from asking why.

Experts say honesty is the best answer.

“Sometimes we just have to tell the kids we don’t know,” Dr. Nieman said. “We have to admit we don’t have the answer.”

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