The news of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, today have shocked the nation. As the story unfolded, often being corrected as the day wore on, our reactions have run the gamut of utter disbelief, profound sadness, and anger bubbling over to rage. Our staff members have been in prayer today and have been receiving a multitude of resources offered to help respond in appropriate and helpful ways in the wake of this tragedy.
Below I have compiled a list of pointers that I have found to be the most helpful for families needing to address this news with their own elementary aged children and older youth. Please remember that is is the primary responsibility of parents to choose how and when to address such complex and sad issues with their children. The church is here to support them, not direct them, in their own parenting choices.
We also invite you to visit the website for Forma at www.episcoforma.org. This community of Episcopal Christian educators, formation professionals, and their institutional partners that celebrates and uphold the diverse ministries of Christian formation across the the Episcopal Church is an excellent network that shares resources and has pledged to help lift up resources specifically addressing ways that churches can respond to violence and tragedy. I am thankful for their support, leadership, and collaboration.
Be aware of and limit your child’s exposure to news media and social networking outlets. Teenagers with Facebook access can quickly become over-exposed and hyper-sensitized in the emotional moment in the wake of a tragedy. They can also find a lot of information that is inaccurate, at best, as well as suggestions of solutions that are not helpful, destructive, and even inappropriate. Don’t be afraid to turn off the TV and shut down the computer.
Assess what your child knows. Address the tough stuff if your children bring it up. They might see it on TV or hear about it at school, and then you have to deal with it. Be aware that younger students (like many other folks) may react with deep emotion, may not react at all, or their reaction may fall somewhere in between.
Keep it black and white. Kids need to be reassured that this isn’t happening to them and discuss the precautions that are in place that makes their world safe. Teenagers need to be reminded that this is not the norm, they do not need to be fearful, and their schools have plans in place to protect them in the unlikely event of such an emergency.
Ask questions. Don’t assume you know how your child feels. Instead, get at their understanding of what happened. They might be afraid — or just curious. You have to ascertain that by asking things like ‘What did you hear? What do you think? What can I help you with? If they are scared, ask what they’re afraid of – don’t assume you know. Correct any misconceptions, and then offer assurance. Be honest.
Don’t label feelings. Let them know that each of their feelings makes sense, and that it’s okay to feel whatever they’re feeling. Parents and adults need to first deal with and assess their own responses to crisis and stress. Our emotions happen to us; we then choose how to react to them, and not all of us react the same ways. It is helpful for parents to not over-react or dwell on the negativity or sadness. Appropriate expressions of sadness can be helpful for your child to see. But they also need to be reassured that you are okay, and they are okay.
Use it as a teaching moment. Talking about bad things can lead to more optimistic discussions about how to help others, and gives parents an opportunity to model compassion. Talk about ways to help people in need and the importance of open channels of communication within your family. Teenagers who are learning more abstract thought processes may feel very conflicted in their response. Help them to embrace positive aspects of helping those in need.
Respond. Movement, art, journaling, talking can all be helpful and positive ways to let your mind and body address the emotions. Adhering to normal routines and plans are also vastly important in times of stress, especially as holidays approach. Keep your traditions and don’t be afraid to light an extra candle for the families who are grieving.
Pray. Encourage your children to give voice to their own prayers. Offer your own spontaneous prayers. If children or teens express frustration or even anger with God, reassure them that God’s heart is breaking, too, and that God is big enough and strong enough and compassionate enough to handle whatever we have to offer. Use The Book of Common Prayer, Call On Me, and Changes as prayer resources. And please feel free to join the cloud of witnesses praying the following prayer adapted from Enriching Our Worship 2.
Loving God, Jesus gathered your little ones in his arms and blessed them. Have pity on those who mourn for the children and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, innocents lost to the violence of our fallen world. As all things are possible with you, redeem this horror with the immensity of your love, and lead us to somehow love those who are responsible, filling our hearts with a spirit of forgiveness. Be with us as we struggle with the mysteries of life and death; in our pain, bring your comfort, and in our sorrow, bring your hope and your promise of new life, in the name of Jesus our Savior. Amen.
Bronwyn Clark Skov
Formation and Vocation Ministries
The Episcopal Church