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Parents should be honest, accurate about attack

New Hampshire Sunday News

December 14. 2012 10:56PM

A state mental-health expert who has helped many New Hampshire communities cope after traumatic events urges parents to "do whatever they can to make their kids feel safe," after Friday's horrific school shooting in Connecticut.

Paul Deignan, disaster behavioral health coordinator for the state health department, oversees teams of experts who are trained to respond to disasters of all kinds, including "school-based critical incidents."

Last year, Deignan's agency distributed a plan titled "Responding to Critical Incidents in Schools" to every superintendent in New Hampshire, offering guidance for faculty, students and parents. And part of that plan is helping children cope with loss and grief.

Among the tips for helping children after a disaster:

. Hug and touch your child often.

. Reassure your child frequently that you are safe and together.

. Talk with your child about his or her feelings.

. Spend extra time with your child at bedtime.

. If your child is having problems at school, talk with the teacher to work together to help your child.

On Friday, Deignan sent a copy of that state plan to his counterpart in Connecticut, along with an offer of assistance. He said he's ready to go if they need him.

Deignan said parents have to be honest with their children and provide accurate information. After the 9/11 attacks, he said, many children "thought there were hundreds of towers falling down because it was repeated over and over" on television.

If children seem worried, he said, "maybe for a period of time, let them sleep with the lights on or in an older brother's room."

"Just extra comfort and hugs," he suggested.

And he said it's important to reassure children that their schools are safe.

After news of Friday's shooting broke, school officials in Litchfield sent home tips for parents and teachers to talk with children about violence, from the National Association of School Psychologists.

At the very top: "Reassure children that they are safe."

Other advice:

. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.

. Review safety procedures.

. Observe children's emotional state. Changes in behavior, appetite and sleep patterns can indicate anxiety.

. Maintain a normal routine.

. Limit television viewing of such events.

JoAnn Cobb, a licensed clinical social worker with Child and Family Services, said the last one is critical, especially with younger children.

"We have to be very careful about how much TV we're allowing kids to watch," she said. "Maybe you should limit the amount of exposure they have to the news at this point so that they don't have to relive it every single day."

In fact, for parents of pre-school children, Cobb said, "I don't think they should say anything to their little ones at all unless they've somehow inadvertently heard the TV or overheard their parents being upset over the situation."

"Because, really, they're too young to understand."

With elementary-age children, Cobb said, parents should be "validating their feelings, reaffirming their safety and letting them know that their school is doing everything that they can to protect them every day."

With middle- and high-school students, she said, it's OK to talk about the tragedy in more detail. But again, she said, it's important to reinforce the message: "Your school is safe."

So what if a youngster doesn't want to go to school on Monday? Cobb said that may be OK, but parents should use that time to talk with their youngsters and come up with strategies to reassure them that they're safe.

Cobb also stressed that parents need to be careful not to impose their own emotions on their children. "You don't want the kids to pick up on their own parents' anxiety over this," she said.

"Remember that they're not there to help you with your feelings," she advised. "Seek out someone else, another adult, to help you with your feelings."

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