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Tips on how to talk to children about school shooting

Outside the Roger Clap Innovation School in DorchesterFriday afternoon, parents waited to pick up their children with warm embraces and anxious hearts.

As excited students raced out of the school’s double green doors, their parents faced the uncertain prospect of how to discuss the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Experts offered advice and schools scrambled to provide guidance. They all recognized the challenge ahead: How could a parent explain to a child an event so horrific that adults had trouble comprehending it?

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“I don’t want to shield it from them, but I don’t want to give them a lot of gory details, because it’s hard for them to understand,” said Karen Murphy of Dorchester, who has two children at the Clap School.

Murphy said she will probably talk about the shooting more with her daughter, who is in the third grade, than with her son, who is in K-1. She said she and her husband will sit down with their daughter and discuss the realities of violence in society.

Whether the information comes from television, Facebook, the playground, or adults around the neighborhood, children will hear about the mass shootings in the coming days and parents should be prepared to discuss it, said Susan Swick, a child psychiatrist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

“If a child hasn’t heard about it yet, they’re likely going to hear about it in the next few days,” Swick said. “It’s OK for parents to introduce it.”

Parents should check in with their child at a time when they know the youngster usually talks — such as during a drive, before bedtime, or at dinnertime — and ask what they have heard about the shooting, Swick said.

If children have questions, parents should answer them in an age-appropriate and clear manner, Swick said.

With preschoolers and kindergartners, parents can merely explain that something bad happened at a school, Swick said, keeping their language simple.

Some children may ask questions; others may just want to go outside and play.

“Parents don’t have to initiate a conversation with kindergartners,” Swick said. “But assume they’ll have heard it. And the worst way to hear it is that they’ve overheard it. . . . If they overhear it they will make some mistake about it.”

Kurt Knepsheild, a parent at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy in Dorchester, said he would discuss the shooting with his third-grade daughter and run through the school’s safety procedures. Knepsheild said he would make sure she knows to listen to fire alarms and announcements at school.

“I definitely want to [enforce that she should pay] attention to what she needs to do,” he said.

But child psychiatrists also reminded parents that they should reassure children that school staff, teachers, police officers, and parents are doing everything possible to make their school safe.

“This is the most unusual and horrible situation,” said Eugene Beresin, medical director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic. “Even for kids who live in dangerous neighborhoods, schools are generally the safest place for kids to be, not the streets.”

Adults should pay close attention to vulnerable children, who may have lost loved ones or have special needs, because this situation can trigger more anxiety, the psychiatrists said.

And while parents may be glued to televisions and computers trying to understand what happened by absorbing as much information as possible, that isn’t the best approach for children.

“Older adolescents can watch and discuss. But turn the television off for the younger children,” Beresin said.

Several area school systems sent parents advice about how to talk to their children about the shooting. In their e-mails to parents, many of the superintendents recommended an online tipsheet called, “A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope.”

Newton Superintendent David Fleishman said parents should decide how much they want to tell their children.

“What we learned from 9/11 with children, is that families have different philosophies on how to talk,” he said.

Kelley Keady of Dorchester, who was among the parents waiting for her children outside the Clap School Friday afternoon, said she plans to have a discussion with her two daughters, first- and second-graders, but will temper the conversation.

Globe correspondent Melissa Werthmann contributed to this report. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe. Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson@globe.com.
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