Monday, December 17, 2012

Anxiety In Young Children: Reactions to The Tragedy in Connecticut

I am on the School Accountability Committee at my childrens' elementary school (ECE-3), and I wrote the following letter to go out to parents regarding the Sandy Hook school shooting. As a psychologist, I thought it might help reassure parents that their kids are going to be okay. Keep in mind, this is information pertaining to kids who are ages 3 through 9. Here is the letter:

Hello all,

My name is Max Wachtel. I am a XXXXXX parent with children in XXXXXX and XXXXXX. I am also a member of the School Accountability Committee. I am a psychologist and professor in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver.

In the wake of the horrible tragedy that befell Sandy Hook Elementary School and Newtown, Connecticut, I would like to share a few tips:

11. First, do not allow your young children to watch the news right now. If you decide they need to know about the shooting, talk to them about it yourself, but turn off the news when they are around. They will see images and hear stories that will haunt them.

22. If your children ask you about the shooting, don’t shy away from the conversation. Ask them what they have heard, correct any misconceptions they have, and tell them the (limited) truth.

33. If you have this conversation with your kids, be prepared to discuss death, religion, guns, good versus evil, the existence of a higher power, and the afterlife. Kids have the same big, existential questions we adults have.

Also, your children may be more stressed than usual for the next week or two. Here is some information that may be helpful for you to have:

11. The vast majority of humans, including children, are highly resilient. Your kids are strong and have the capability to make it through some horrendous times without being scarred by them. So, if your kids are struggling right now, try not to worry too much about it. They will get better.

22. Stress comes out in children in different ways. You might see your children crying or throwing more temper tantrums. You might see them revert to previous stages of development (e.g. thumb sucking, bed wetting, baby talk, etc.). You might see more anger and aggression in your children as well.

33. If you notice any of the above-mentioned changes in behavior (emphasis: changes in behavior), it is likely your child is stressed out. Talk to your child about his or her emotions and let him or her know you care. Firmly address any dangerous behavioral issues, but do so sympathetically. Remember, your kid is going to go back to normal—there is no need to get overly frustrated about temporary issues.

44. If any of these problems last more than about two weeks, there is a chance something bigger than stress over the shooting is occurring. At that point, it might be important to schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician to discuss the recent but lasting behavioral changes you have noticed.

55. In more severe reactions, you will see your child frightened to go to school. Refusing to get out of bed in the morning, crying at the drop-off, clinging to the parent, panicking when the parent leaves—if your child develops these types of behaviors, you might want to address it sooner rather than later.

What can you do to reduce your child’s anxiety?

61. Play with them. Spending time with your children sends a message of compassion and reassurance. They learn you are going to be there for them. Kids also work out some of their emotional difficulties through play—by observing your kids at play, you can determine how they are feeling.

22. Get them some exercise. You know how you feel better when you exercise? Kids do too. Figure out a way to have them run around a bit every day, even during the cold winter months.

33. Do some good deeds with your kids. Donate money or time to local charities (for kids, time is better than money). Teaching your kids about helping others helps them feel better about themselves.

44. Like I mentioned before, limit their exposure to the news right now. And, if you feel the need to talk about the tragedy, wait until your children aren’t around. Despite what you think, your children listen attentively to everything you say!

I hope this helps. Thanks—Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


I am a psychologist and professor in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver.

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