6 Ways to Help Your Child Understand the Newtown School Shooting

Trauma specialist Dr. Saliha Bava offers advice on how to help children cope with the news of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. 

I am numbed to hear of the horrible mass shooting at Newtown, Conniticut. Even though I’m a disaster response specialist, I’m also a parent, and my heart goes out to all the families and community that have been impacted. As a Trauma specialist and Couple/Family Therapist, I have been asked by GMP what we can all do, and how to talk to our kids. I’m sharing a few things that I am focusing on with my elementary age child and family. I will share more as news unfolds.

What you read below is for children and families who have not been directly impacted by today’s shooting. If you have been directly impacted, please call 1-800-985-5990 or visit the website: http://www.disasterdistress.samhsa.gov/ and connect with the local resources in your community.

Attention to the Context

While talking to children, we have to be attentive to the following factors that impacts how to respond.

  1. Child’s age and development stage
  2. Child’s perception of danger or threat or death (varies by age & experience)
  3. Weather the child was a victim or witness of this incident or others
  4. If the child was related directly or indirectly to the shooting (related to the victim)
  5. Child and family’s own history of previous trauma, loss and death
  6. Availability of adults who can offer help or support
  7. The geographical distance: as new travels, places closer to the shooting site might have a more heightened response
  8. Family context: how are things in transition and what provides stability or consistency
  9. One’s sense of normalcy will vary depending on age, gender, ethnicity, religion, class, sexual orientation, location, current unsafe living conditions and many other factors that intersect and impact access to resources  (edited 12/17)
  10. Responses vary


6 Ways to Help Your Child and Yourself as You Respond

1. Limit your child’s exposure: Keep your children from being exposed to the news. Limit TV/news viewing.

2. Limit your own exposure: Switch off the TV and radios, especially if you have kids around you. The more agitated you are, your kids can see and sense it. Think about it as a way of creating a sense of safety. Viewing or listening to the news and seeing all the pictures are ways that you are exposing yourself to traumatic images and thus increasing your sense of threat and lowering your sense of safety. Your children will draw on your sense of threat/safety

3. Listen to your child: Listen to your child, don’t just talk to them. Listen to what questions they have and how they are making sense of everything. If they have questions, don’t shut them down by saying “Don’t think about it.” They already are thinking, so ask them questions. Age appropriate answers are important. Kids have their own ideas about why bad things happen. Let them tell you. Younger kids, who were exposed, will have repeated questions. It is also good to encourage them to talk to their teacher. When kids ask factual questions, it is ok to say “we don’t know.”  For instance, “Why did he shoot?” can be answered with,”We don’t know why he did it.”

4. Reassure your child: If your child is afraid to go to school, tell them that they are ok. “Your school is safe.” I know existentially it is hard to believe we and our kids are ok in the face of this shooting, but we have to do our bit to create a sense of safety and attempt to normalize things for them. Give them extra hugs and look them in the eye and let them know you love them.

5. Do the usual: Spend time and play with them. Do the things you do as part of your routine. Don’t let the news pull you out of your usual context (emotionally we are already feeling shook up. Breathe!). Kids will continue with their flow if they feel like their routine is as usual. All these are ways to reassure and create a sense of safety. (Again this is for kids who have not been directly victimized).

6. Check into your own reaction: As parents, it is important to step back from our own sense of shock, grief and agitation and step towards creating a local sense of normalcy. We need to separate our response that needs to be directed publicly (towards your school’s disaster preparedness, gun control, anti-bullying/violence policy etc) from what our child needs now.  We need to focus right now on what each of us have to do with our family. Both are important, but separating them out helps us to direct our action.


Remember, Breathe and Keep Connecting

Keep breathing out the shock! And reach out to your family and friends to create a sense of community and support! Collective trauma calls for a collective response.

This article is not a substitute for any professional help that might be needed.

More resources for talking to kids from the SAMHSA

AP Photo

About Dr Saliha Bava

Dr. Saliha Bava is a change consultant, couples therapist, and a leading thinker in the transformative field of play (improvisation) for successful living. She is the Director of Research at the International Trauma Studies Program and Associate Professor at Mercy College. She lives and practices in New York City. Follow Saliha on Twitter and Google.


  1. Thank you for helpful tips aimed to support the community during such a very difficult time. The amount of anguish, anxiety and frustration that is being experienced because of this tragedy, has swelled through the community like a river too powerful to survive in. I will use these tips as a life raft to offer to as many community persons, helping professionals and family as I can. No effort for the community is too small or large at this time. The task of managing how to be with the realities of the situation, while trying to provide safety and encouragement is no easy task for any human being. It is my hope that with tips like these as well as contributions from every person in the communities near and abroad, we can create positive changes for our future.

    Keep the help coming

  2. Steven B. Uhrik, LCSW, CEAP says:

    Even one child being murdered, or even hurt this way is one too many. Not even considering the psychological damage. I fear that we could be conditioned into almost expecting things like this tragedy as a “part” of life. We need to operate from the perspective that, yes terrible thing can happen, but we will not ever accept them and further, we will fight for laws that ban assault weapons. They have no purpose other than killing people. Hunters do not need such weapons. The position of the gun lobby about this is socially irresponsible, selfish and reflects a denial level that I believe is outrageous!. I am not “anti-gun” I was, however, trained in the use of firearms and safety. But when they are too easily available, the wrong people can get them. The slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is rhetoric and is not part of the solution here. Let’s put an end to denial. Whatever your opinion is about this, we have to face the fact that it’s completely out of control and totally unacceptable. We need a national standard regulating firearms, banning assault weapons and requiring that people who do own them are trained and must keep their knowledge current. We do more to regulate motor vehicles. If you are just going to use slogans and ignore the problem or oppose firearms legislation, ask yourself this question: are you willing to accept the level of firearms violence and murder that is escalating, including the murder of innocent children? Write to and even better yet, call your legislators and demand action. Please don’t use that argument about government getting too big, this is a nightmare that has to stop.

    • Why are you not demanding protective measures? Please Please Answer that!

      Do YOU honestly believe that the TYPE of gun being banned will stop these things from happening? You can still use a kid’s .22 rifle with open-sights and snipe kids-off in short succession from afar. By the time anyone would figure what was happening, there would be too many dead to count, so you had better bring in every EVERY gun.

      Please tell me you are not so blind that you don’t see heroine, meth and crack sales and usage on a mega-scale in this country? Did you not know those drugs are SO freakin illegal that it would curle your sheltered little head of hair!! In 15 minutes, I can go to ANY city and find any of those drugs. So you think guns being removed from the wealthy, honest and sound citizens of this nation is going to stop Sandy Bend from happening?

      Do you honestly think sick minds won’t still get guns? Are you THAT simple? Don’t you know in the nations with total gun bans, gun violence is through the roof; especially violence upon the unarmed, non-druggie home owner? Please tell me a LCSW is not this naive!!!

      If some Prozac-bean can’t get his little army gun, do you honestly think he won’t be able to buy a couple of gallons of gas and kill and entire school? Do you not have THAT much predicative skill regarding the nature of sick humans? You ever see a Molotov Cocktail LCSW? You ever see one in action?

      Why do you fear REAL protective measure for my school children? PLEASE ANSWER THAT and stop this wimped-out hand wringing.

      • Rob you are out of line! This is not the forum for gun promotion, and your information is incorrect. The USA is the country with gun crime through the roof! The closest is Canada I am sad to say, and even corrected for population density the PER CAPITA gun deaths are less than 10% of the USA. toll In the UK the numbers are even smaller, and they have strict gun control.
        “The rate for murder by gunfire is 100 times that of the United Kingdom and only Colombia has a worse record for gun violence than the US. Every year, 17,000 people are killed in America, 70 per cent of them with guns, and nearly 20,000 people commit suicide by shooting themselves.
        When it comes to shooting of children, the numbers are even more horrifying – the number of children killed by gunfire in the United States is 25 times the rate of the 20 next largest industrial countries in the world combined.”
        Read more: As America gears up for gun control debate firearm statistics revealed – TNT Magazine
        Follow us: @tntmagazine on Twitter | tntmag on Facebook

  3. Thanks for this! I am far away and not connected to this tragedy, but hours after hearing this news I have tears in my eyes as I type. No matter where we are, if we are thinking feeling people we are shocked by this senseless tragedy, and the maelstrom that it will create for so many innocent lives. I remember my children at that age, and the tangible sense of loss when they went off to to kindergarten each morning. I often thought of them through my working day, and reunions after school were wonderful. I am so sad for the hell that each of those parents is going through tonight, knowing that reunion in this world is now impossible.

    • Yes Lorraine, it is challenging. I had tears last night while viewing the Vigil. Let’s continue to keep them in our heart and support the families & community in our own way.

  4. I find this video comforting at times like these. Sorry if its a hi-jack of the article, but it seems to jibe with the spirit of the post.


  5. “Keep breathing out the shock!”

    Its a key tool of getting through this horrid time. Cleansing breath!

  6. I think limiting a child’s exposure to this news is critical. When I was a child, the Tison’s escaped from prison and I was terrified. I remember having to sleep with the light on at night, I couldn’t fall asleep, I crawled into my parents’ bed in the night after having night terrors… as a result, I have never let my children watch the news. I’ve avoided having cable/regular t.v., and have limited them to Netflix and Apple t.v. over the years. In school, I had to write their teachers notes explaining that we needed to adjust assignments where they watched the news to looking up articles on the internet. I never wanted them to be exposed to the “body count” on the news.

    As an adult, I can’t even begin to fathom the horror that happened in this classroom of sweet, innocent children. I can’t wrap my head around it, and certainly my children won’t be able to. I have done everything possible to raise my kids in a bit of a sheltered world… I do what I can to teach them to be cautious and safe. Random killings like this can never be avoided, so I’d rather they just not know how horrible the world can be.

    My heart goes out to the parents, the families, the faculty and staff that surrounded the little angels that were taken today. Kindergartners are such a precious age… they are just beginning to learn and flap their little tiny wings. Their chocolate kisses and peanut butter hugs are the most precious things in the world. Words seem so trite at a time like this. I am so, so sad for the loss of truly innocent lives today. May those affected be surrounded by much love as they begin to deal with this tragedy.

  7. Dear Saliha, your kind words are going to be helpful to many parents who don’t know how to deal with this kind of situations, I’m sharing this and congratulations on your fine work

  8. I have tears in my eyes…..

  9. I’m not a parent, but my heart is shredded thinking of my loved one’s kids. I’m sharing this wonderful piece. Thank you.


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