Helping children cope with tragedy

People gather at a prayer vigil at St. Rose Church in Newtown, Conn., on Friday.
(Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty Images)

For retired school psychologist Cathy Paine, the shooting in Newtown, Conn., evoked painful memories of that day nearly 15 years ago when her school district suffered a similar tragedy.

Paine, 63, was one of the first counselors to arrive at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., after a student opened fire in the cafeteria, killing two and wounding 25.

Today, she belongs to the National Assn. of School Psychologists and leads a team that provides assistance to schools, families and communities dealing with crisis.


Understanding Friday’s tragedy might not be possible, she said, but parents can help their children with the fear and insecurity that shootings evoke, whether they experienced the incident firsthand or through media accounts.

According to a guide published by the Lucy Daniels Center, a mental health agency based in North Carolina, if children learn of a disturbing event, parents should assume that their children will be shaken, even if there are no obvious signs.

“The best approach is to let the child be your guide,” Paine said. “Listen and ask them how are they feeling. Are they afraid? It’s all about safety and security. This first thing that the kids will wonder is if this will happen to them when they go to school Monday morning.”

Paine suggested that parents console and comfort their children. Extra hugs help — for both the child and the parent. In addition, parents should maintain a normal routine. Weekend plans should stay in place. Holiday shopping or decorating provide opportunities for parents to reassure their children.

Parents should emphasize the rarity of the event and limit television viewing. Images seen over and over give the impression that these events happen everywhere.

The key is to tailor information to suit the age and maturity of the child. “When talking to very young children,” she said, “you need to be very simple and not provide lot of details.”


Drawing pictures together can provide clues for how to talk to a child.

For older children, it might mean stating the obvious — “A terrible thing happened. It is rare, but it did happen here. We want to do what we can to help us feel better about it.” — and then following the child’s lead.

It is also important to watch for symptoms of grief in the weeks ahead. Younger children might experience stomachaches or headaches. They might stage tantrums or want to sleep with their parents.

Older children might have trouble concentrating or watch more television than usual. These are normal reactions, Paine said, but if they persist, or seem unusually intense, parents should speak to a school counselor or their physician.

The Lucy Daniels guide also reminds parents to moderate their reaction to the shooting because children often mirror the emotions of others.

In the aftermath of the Springfield shooting, Paine watched as other communities reached out to hers. Staging fundraisers is one way to help people feel that they can gain a little control in their lives. Students in one fifth-grade class wrote a “peace pledge,” reminding students to be kind to one another. The pledge has been read every morning since.

Speaking about the terrible events in Newtown, Paine reflected on the difficulty of trying to understand why such tragedies happen, forcing people to live with the incomprehensible.


“We’re rational and this is irrational, and you just can’t make sense of this,” Paine said. “Kids will be asking, ‘Why did this happen?’ And the best we can say is that we might not ever know.”