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Relating to children after tragedy

In the wake of last week’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., local health experts have offered the following advice to adults on communicating with children:
The grieving process for children is different from that of adults, so don’t be surprised if children do not seem interested in the event that happened or do not express any emotions about the incident. Children who are under the age of 8 may not be able to understand that death is permanent.
On the other hand, children may react to this news. Some behaviors you may see are withdrawal, restlessness, impulsivity, lack of focus, extreme talkativeness, disorganization and/or recklessness.
Adults should look for regression in behavior, sleep problems and physical complaints such as stomach ache, headaches and not wanting to go to school. Monitor the child’s behavior through drawings, play and acting out. Depending on the age of the child he/she might not be able to put their feelings into words.
If adults think the child has symptoms that go on for a long period of time, they should seek professional assistance.
• There is no need to bring the situation up if you do not think they are aware of it. However, if children ask about it or if you notice any changes, respond honestly to them.
• For very young children keep the information simple and explain the situation in broad terms. Older children might want to know more details of the incident.
• Listen to your child. Think about why the child has asked you the question, and respond to the underlying feeling. Make every effort to create a safe environment where children can express all of their feelings.
• Do not give a child false assurance by saying this will never happen to them. Instead tell them that you will do everything you can to keep them safe and that events like this are unusual and do not happen often. 
• If you choose to explain the concept of death, be true to your family’s culture and values.
• Provide children with a positive outlet to express their emotions, such as drawing, playing with their toys, journaling, writing letters, talking, making a collage, or through music.
Sources: Dr. Phyllis Post and Dr. Peggy Ceballos, professors of counseling at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Dr. Laurie Hicks, a pediatrician who is director of palliative care at Levine Children’s Hospital; David Carl, executive director of pastoral care services at Carolinas HealthCare System; and Lynna Alvarnas, a registered nurse who is coordinator of palliative care services at Levine Children’s Hospital.

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