12/14/2012 06:12 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

How to Talk to Your Kids About the Connecticut School Tragedy

How do you talk with your children about an unspeakable crime? It's a heartwrenching reality as the country takes in one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. Twenty children, mainly kindergartners, and 7 adults, including the shooter, died after a shooting rampage this morning at an elementary school in Connecticut.

The gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT early this morning and opened fire. Police are working on the motive, but sources say that the suspect had a connection to the school. One of the teachers was among the first killed early in the day and many of the young victims were her students.

How do you reassure your kids, let alone yourself, that school is a safe enriching haven that provides the education they need to get ahead in this world? It's a difficult task, to say the least. As parents, we are faced with comprehending the news, fearing for our own children and wanting to make some kind of sense out of an elementary school shooting that will certainly go down in history as one of the most hideous crimes committed against our children.

I am a parent who lives near enough to the tragedy it is hard to describe the sinking feeling of fear, disgust, sorrow and even terror our community feels. And as a child psychologist charged with trying to make sense of the tragedy, I am indeed overwhelmed.

It is important to focus on what we can do now, not on what has already happened. It is likely that many children will hear about this tragedy on television, online, in school, on the bus. What parents can do is prepare themselves to field questions and provide honest yet helpful answers.

Here are just a few helpful hints to consider:

If you are not sure your child knows about the tragedy, wait until he says something about it to you. Some children are more in tune with the world around them than others. Today, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Thomas McInerny, MD, FAAP, issued a statement offering condolences and tips for parents. "As in any frightening situation, young children should not be exposed to the extensive media coverage of the event -- in other words, turn off the TV, computer and other media devices."

If your child asks you what happened keep it simple and developmentally appropriate. If, for example, your child indicates that she heard that someone came to a school and killed children you should be honest but gentle. Preface your affirmation by reassuring her that this is called a tragedy because it is so rare and unexpected.

Even if your child seems more curious than scared or anxious when he asks you about the incident, reassurance is essential. It may take some time for him to really process the information and the feelings it evokes for him.

If she is clearly upset and scared help refocus her emotions. Suggest an age appropriate project you can do with her to help her manage. Perhaps she can make a drawing or a collage of happy things for the kids at the school or write a letter in support of them.

Don't be afraid to let your child know that you, too, feel sad. He takes his cues from you. If he expresses that he is scared or even afraid to go to his school, let him know you understand why he feels this way. Reassure him that his school is safe and that because of these events all schools will be making even greater efforts to remain safe.

Do not act hysterical or terrified in front of her. These events are difficult for everyone to manage but, as mentioned, she does take her cues from you. If you express overwhelming fear or anxiety she may react in kind.

Go out of your way to make some family time. Tragedies such as this one remind us how lucky we are. Forget about folding the laundry or making that call, there will be time later. Take a moment to enjoy your family. The attention, love and sense of security you impart to them is priceless.

The AAP offers resources for talking to children about disasters, and advice on watching for signs of stress and trauma. Check here for details.

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Jennifer A. Powell-Lunder, Psy. D. is currently a clinical administrator on an adolescent inpatient unit in a private psychiatric hospital. She is an adjunct Professor of Psychology at Pace University and maintains a private outpatient practice. Jennifer is also the co-author of "Teenage as a Second Language."