The tragic killing of a 12-year-old boy in Andover Thursday was the latest in a succession of fatal incidents involving children in Massachusetts. They include the shooting of 13-year-old Tyler Lawrence Jan. 29 in Mattapan and the Jan. 24 killings of three young children in Duxbury, allegedly by their mother.
The accumulation of disturbing news could be frightening for children who hear details on television or through adult conversations. For parents wondering how to address violence and death with their children, the Globe sought advice from Dr. Neena McConnico, executive director of Boston Medical Center’s Child Witness to Violence Project. Here’s what she had to say.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Do children pick up on and understand reports of these kinds of situations?
Regardless of age, children can get a sense of what is going on, whether they’ve heard about it directly or indirectly. For younger kids, they don’t have the cognitive capacity to fully grasp what is happening, but they may pick up on how their caregivers or the adults are responding to it. Around death, they certainly know that it is something significant or concerning.
How should I talk to my child about this?
For older kids, it’s great to have direct conversations with them about these things, even if they’re not bringing it up, because the likelihood of them hearing about it is high.
I would much rather be the one to give my child information about it. I know my child the best and have a better sense of what level of information they can handle. Fact check and make sure that your adolescent has accurate information.
For younger children, it might be important to have a more direct conversation about it, even if they’re not bringing it up. There’s that opportunity for them to learn about it when they’re not with you from some other source. The goals of those conversations are about reassurance and safety.
It’s important to be honest. You could say, “I’m not really sure why that person may have done that,” because we’re trying to make sense of it, too.
Another option could be to say, “It sounds like that person became really angry, and the way that they showed their anger was to hurt people.” And then reiterating that there are helpers working to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.
How should I start the conversation?
I would say something like: “You may have heard about recent incidents of violence that have been occurring, and I know you may have a lot of thoughts or feelings. And I just want you to know that I’m here to have a conversation with you if that is something that you think would be helpful.”
What if my child asks, “Could this happen to me or to people that I care about?”
You never want to tell a child that’s never going to happen to them, because we just don’t know. It’s more appropriate to focus on all the ways you are working on keeping them safe. The goal here is to help them to feel as regulated and calm as possible, knowing that we live in a world of uncertainty. For older kids, you can also have conversations about how often these things happen or, if you were in a situation like that, what are some things that you might do.
Are there any behaviors that I should watch for in my child that may indicate anxiety about what’s going on?
Any change in behavior. If you have a child who’s typically outgoing and you start to notice they’re withdrawn, that would be an indicator that there’s something else that’s going on there.
Any changes in appetite or sleeping. Younger children who had nightmares where they may not be able to say what the dream was about.
If they’re trying to find reasons not to go to school, or their grades start to slip.
How do I help my kids regain their sense of security?
Keep routines the same. Having that routine and knowing what’s going to happen from one moment to the next is incredibly calming and reassuring for kids.
Limit media exposure, particularly for younger children. If they keep seeing the same story about the same incident, they don’t necessarily know that it’s the same incident, and they may think it’s multiple incidents.
And there can never be too much communication. So just keeping those channels open so that kids know that they can talk to you.
Check in with yourself because kids are going to take cues from the adults around them. If you’re incredibly anxious, overwhelmed, or scared, they’re also going to be. It can be OK to let children know that Mommy or Daddy is scared, too. If you find yourself having a hard time, hold off on having conversations with your child until you’re feeling a little more regulated.
Is there anything I shouldn’t do or say?
Don’t tell kids how to feel. You don’t want somebody to tell you that your feelings are not your feelings. Don’t push kids to talk or interact with you around these things. You have to follow their lead.
And recognizing that just because something is helpful to you, that doesn’t necessarily mean that is the best coping mechanism for somebody else.