The unspeakable school shooting in Newtown, Conn., will continue to be front-page news for the next several days. Parents in my social development practice are wondering how in the world to talk to their bright but socially challenged children about this kind of event. It’s tough for parents of typically developing children to help their children process traumatic news coverage, but it can be much more complicated for parents of neurodivergent children to explain big, tragic events like this one.
Children in my practice can be academically talented but less skilled at sizing up and navigating the social world around them. Many are concrete, black-and-white thinkers, with fewer social problem-solving skills and high levels of anxiety. With a topic as abstract and incomprehensible as this, no wonder parents are worried about explaining it. Having worked in both child trauma and in social cognitive development, I have some thoughts to share on talking with a socially challenged child about an enormous tragedy.
First, it’s understandable that parents often find comfort and support, while reeling from a terrible event, by talking with each other. Most of us know it’s best to do so completely out of sight and earshot of our children, but in our distress, we sometimes slip. Paradoxically, some of our children with developmental differences who have difficulty reading and responding to social cues from their peers will hone in directly on hushed whispers and pained facial expressions of their parents or other adults. Children may hear news of a tragedy even if we are careful about how and when we discuss it, but we can avoid magnifying their worries by being extra thoughtful about how and when we discuss it amongst ourselves. Sometimes when children don’t display the more familiar markers of paying attention to others, we are more likely to slip.
We can all benefit from remembering that this is extremely toxic material for all of us, but especially for children, who have less life experience and therefore less context than adults in which to place it. If you know that your child already has heard about the shootings, I suggest you generally aim to minimize the information you add to their fund of knowledge about it. Quite a few of our students are vividly visual thinkers, so considering what kinds of mental pictures they may be constructing as you talk to them may help you to stay on the conservative side in sharing new details.
Having said that, correct significant misinformation, if you are in a position to do so. Reassure your child that this is a big deal in the news because it is unusual, and be direct, specific, and confident in your assurance that they are safe. Acknowledge and validate their feelings if they express any, but as you do so, stay aware of the fact that they will be likely to internalize your emotional response to this event. It is OK for us to be deeply affected, even overwhelmed by this horrible day, even if we do not have direct connections to the victims. But if we can manage to avoid it, it is better if we are not overwrought in front of our children.
If your child does not know about the shootings, it is OK to choose not to inform them, particularly if they are younger and less likely to hear about it from classmates or siblings. Keep the TV and radio off for a while. Unless you have good reason to believe that they know about it, let children have more time to develop without carrying the burden of knowing all about this kind of senseless, brutal crime. This particularly applies to children who are highly sensitive, who have a hard time understanding “the big picture” but instead focus intensely on details, and children who already have difficulty connecting and socializing with others.
If you are unsure if they have heard about it, you can ask open-ended questions: “What’s been going on at school?” and “What have you been thinking about lately?” Be open to listening if they tell you what they have heard, so you can find out what they know and offer your support. If your child seems upset but has trouble articulating it, you can say, “You seem bothered by something. Is there anything on your mind that I should know about?”
Some experts have suggested that parents explain to their children — if their children know about it and ask why something like this would happen — that the person responsible had a problem with their brain, and could not think right. Children who have little to no experience with people’s brains working differently, or having trouble thinking clearly, might feel somewhat comforted by this. However, families of children with brain-based developmental differences need to approach it differently.
Some of the children I work with are aware that they, or their friends, take medicine to help their brains work better. Others understand that their brain gets stuck on certain ideas, or is different in the way it processes sensory input, language, social patterns, reading, math, etc. Still others have overheard this or figured it out for themselves.
These children are more likely than others to be aware of brain differences. The more concrete thinkers may skip the nuances and go directly to the conclusion that they, or someone they know, could be like the person who committed this terrible act. The same can be said for worried siblings of children who are clearly developing with a different kind of mind than many of their peers.
Most children who find out about an atrocity such as this one won’t be traumatized or scarred by it, so don’t panic if your child hears about it from a sibling or a classmate or the news. Most of the time, we can soothe and reassure our children sufficiently, and we do. The more specific we can be about the ways we are safe, the better. But if your child seems extremely upset and has physical symptoms of distress that persist, or obsesses over this or another violent event, get professional help sooner rather than later.
If a child is capable of directly asking why such a bad thing would happen, they may be able to follow as you broaden the conversation to admit that we don’t always know why bad things happen. As parents, we usually try to answer our children’s questions, but sometimes we need to remember that it’s not actually our job to have all the answers. You could say that you wish you knew, and acknowledge that that there are things we don’t completely understand. Ask your child what else they wish they understood more.
While we don’t always understand or have control over all the bad things that happen in the world, we do have at least some influence over many things. For most children, including children who are developing differently, it is helpful to concentrate on what is within your child’s “locus of control,” and within your own. The professional mental health community makes use of this strategy of empowerment, by helping people with PTSD focus on what they may have done to contribute to getting to safety or returning from a dangerous mission.
In my previous line of work, the counterbalance to hearing shocking stories of children being harmed was to focus specifically on what I could do to help, and also on the ways in which the victim demonstrated resilience, or even endurance, or someone stepped in to help. These are just a couple of ways that we can direct our attention to what is adaptive and what we can control.
In the same way, we can fulfill our own need to do something constructive while helping our neuroatypical children cope by working to create the safest, healthiest school communities possible.
We can do this by developing problem solving skills. We can teach our children to speak up and get help for a friend who is being picked on. We can help them find a “brave voice” to speak up for themselves. We can place a high, positive value on the skill of understanding someone else’s perspective, starting with understanding theirs. We can help them make friends who support them, and encourage them to support their friends right back. We can help kids with social challenges learn bit by bit to manage their own behavior and emotions in social situations so they can manage themselves better, and make connections with people they want to know.
These are all things we can actually work on today and tomorrow to help create better schools, and a better world. We can make a real difference … just by doing the work we already have on our plates.