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Saturday, December 15, 2012

protecting kids from bad news

I wrote this article, which was published in the Winchester Star on October 4, 2013.

An upcoming media frenzy is quietly building in Winchester.  While we get a kick out of having our town being featured in Boston Magazine’s “Best of” issues or spotlighted Chronicle for our gorgeous homes, an entirely different kind of attention will be focused on our charming little cityburb over the next months.  Satellite trucks will be rolling in, filled with reporters, cameramen and field producers, looking for 20 second sound bytes to fill their air.  This is the sort of attention we’d rather not have, but with jury selection for the Mortimer trial beginning on October 9th, the scenario is all too likely.

We don’t just live in this community.  We are this community.  The pain and the heartbreak experienced by those closest to the victims were absorbed on some level by all of us.  How do we armor ourselves and protect our neighbors against the flurry of sadness that is bound to return?  And more importantly, how do we shield our children?

Bill McAlduff, superintendent of schools in Winchester, has no special programming in place that would re-introduce the tragic loss of our neighbors to school children.  He does, however, have crisis teams in each building and says that teachers’ protocol is to, “end any discussion that is found to be inappropriate for the classroom and direct concerned students to the school psychologist.”

Robin Shapiro, director of LEAP School in Lexington where 4 year old Finn and 2 year old Charlotte attended, presents advice as one who has managed some tough conversations with little ones.  To protect the privacy of families and faculty, she did not comment directly on specific conversations, but offers this:

“My advice to parents of young children when facing any kind of tragic situation, loss or major life event is to first try and process the situation away from your child, before entering into any kind of conversation with your child(ren).  It is hard for most adults to understand these kind of traumatic situations and make sense of them, so it is natural that it would be very confusing and scary to young children to be part of the parent’s processing.  

“I encouraged parents on the day of 9/11 to be very aware of the media in their home, the adult conversations in the presence of their young children, and to take time for themselves to work through their emotions first, before discussing events like 9/11 with their small children and make a plan of how, when and what you want to communicate to your child(ren).   

“Some parents feel the need to talk with their children about many life events, others prefer to avoid these uncomfortable topics.  I find it is important to follow the child’s lead in determining how much information to provide that will satisfy the child’s curiosity, while not too much to create fear and insecurity.  

Children need to know that they are safe, that their feelings are valid and have their questions answered in a concrete manner.  It is always helpful to listen carefully to what the children are asking before answering them.”

Deb reminds us to remember older children, too, as they have their own questions and are often in a position of mentoring a small child.  “[Older children] need an opportunity to process information, get their questions answered and receive support to express their thoughts and feelings.  

Depending on the age and level of understanding of the older child, it is helpful to let the older children know how you are responding and supporting the younger sibling, and elicit help from the older child without burdening him/her.” 

Most child experts would agree that honesty is the best policy, keeping in mind that honesty doesn’t mean full disclosure.  Parents and teachers can respond to children’s questions truthfully and tactfully, providing closure for their curious minds, meanwhile being careful not to scare them or draw them into more difficult questions.  Children do not want to know the whole truth.  They just want to be satisfied with answers provided.

For those interested in learning more about children and grief, Donna Smith Sharff, LMHC, Executive Director of The Children’s Room in Arlington, will be presenting a public program on the subject at the First Congregational Church in Winchester on Monday evening, October 29th.  For  more information visit or call 617.641.4741.

-Identify adult feelings first
-Turn off the news while children are in the room or in the car
-Prepare older children who interact with little ones regularly
-Listen to questions carefully
-Be honest but simple