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Experts discuss how to explain tragedy

Published 10:54 am, Thursday, December 20, 2012
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Following the horrific events in Newtown on Friday, Dec. 14, parents around the state struggled with how to explain to their children what happened and why.

Dr. Barbara Greenberg, an adolescent consultant and clinical psychologist at the New Canaan-based Silver Hill Hospital, offered some advice for parents on how to explain to children the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six adults were shot and killed by a 20-year-old man with a semiautomatic rifle.

"Children may not have the same level of understanding, but they do have questions and a need to put together why things happen," she said. "When speaking to kids, you don't want to be abstract, you want to be as clear and as sensibly worded as possible. You want to reassure them that it's still a rare event. Don't overwhelm them with too much information, just answer the questions they ask. What you tell a 6-year-old is different from a 12-year-old. Keep your answers age appropriate."

Psychotherapist Maud Purcell, of the Life Solution Center of Darien, and Amanda Romaniello and Katey Smith, of Family Centers in Darien, took parents' questions at the Darien Library Monday and offered support on how to approach the situation.

Romaniello said parents should reassure children they are safe and limit media exposure so they know they are safe.

"Every time we watch or read something about it, we're re-trauamatizing ourselves, so imagine what that's like for your kids," she said. "Make sure your home is a safe haven."

Gaylen Nash, of Rowayton, said she's told her 9-year-old daughter, but not her 7-year-old. She was wondering about what verbiage she could use to tell her children what happened.

Smith suggested not telling the children anything.

"I would ask them what they know about Newtown," Smith said. "Don't give them anything until they tell you what they know."

Nash said her daughter noticed the heightened number of police cars and the flags at half-staff. She said her daughter is also a doubter.

"She says, `Mommy, how can you tell me that we'll be safe?' " Nash said, adding that's when she turns to her faith.

Purcell suggested giving her a "reality check" by asking her if she's been safe up until now.

Romaniello said that the way parents deal with the situation and the way they model themselves will help their children.

"The further away we get from this, the more they'll get back in their routine," she said. "You don't forget it, but you have enough distance where you can continue your routine."

Ortiz-Schwartz also said it was important for parents to "take stock of where they are and find their own reassurance."

"It's almost like being in an airplane," Ortiz-Schwartz said. "They have to put their own oxygen mask on first so they can get enough oxygen to make sure they're OK and know how this affects them before they can take care of their children. The healing starts by taking care of themselves."

Romaniello suggested parents take time out before their kids get home to do something for themselves, so they're at a better level to deal with the possible questions from their children.

Smith said a model of positive coping is also a good idea.

New Canaan's schools prepared for this complicated issue by reminding teachers and staff at a meeting Monday morning of the best ways to operate.

"At times such as these, I am reminded of the power of a caring community and am certain all of us will do what we can to support one another," wrote New Canaan school district Superintendent Mary Kolek in an email.

The Children's National Medical Center advises parents to be open, available and reassuring to their children. "Maintain your child's routine as best as possible," is one of its recommendations.

This is the tack New Canaan's elementary schools took this week. Bunny Potts, principal of South School, said the school would not be focusing on the event in Newtown, but rather would attempt to regain a sense of security through the normalcy of the routine.

"We are not raising the subject with children," Potts said. "They are very young and wonderfully self-absorbed at this time. So far, the kids have benefited from being back in a routine and with their friends. We've sent letters to parents so they know what our approach is and I think that's helped."

At the high school level, Principal Brian Luizzi said the school would have counseling open to all students should they want it.

Local and regional mental health care organizations have extended their hands as well. Kids in Crisis of Cos Cob, which aims to protect children and teens from abuse, sent all its staff psychologists and technicians to Newtown to offer help.

"All of our people are in Newtown and in the community," said Kids in Crisis Marketing Manager Madeleine Marecki, who added that she was about the only one left in the office. "What's happening right now is we have partnered with Newtown Youth and Family Services and sent counselors up to the town. Any child, parent or family can go in and see a psychologist or technician without an appointment, and it's free."

Staff writer Megan Davis contributed to this report.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews