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How to Cope With Fear After School Shootings

Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
December 14, 2012

Updated on Saturday, Dec. 15 at 9:11 a.m. ET

In the aftermath of a Connecticut mass shooting that may rank among the deadliest in U.S. history, many parents are struggling with a visceral fear for their own children, as well as questions about how to explain the horrific school shooting to young kids.

As many as 27 people are believed to be dead at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., after a gunman began shooting at around 9:40 a.m. ET Friday (Dec. 14) morning, according to news reports. Most of the dead are children, according to ABC News. Officials have identified the suspected gunman as 20-year-old Adam Lanza.

The thought of losing a child in a random act of violence struck many parents after the attack. "Imagining being a parent outside that school with my son unaccounted for. I can't. I just can't," Aaron Gouveia, who blogs about parenthood at www.daddyfiles.com, wrote on his Twitter account.

"Already I've had a couple of phone calls from parents saying, 'My anxiety is over the top now, and what can I do?'" said Deborah Gilboa, a family physician who advises parents through her website www.AskDoctorG.com.

Coping with fear

Indeed, the thought of sending your kid out into a world where even schools can be dangerous is understandably terrifying. It's important to keep perspective, Gilboa told LiveScience, and to remember "there are a lot of 'God forbids' in our kids' lives, and yet we and they go on living in the world." [5 Ways to Foster Self-Compassion in Your Child]

Remembering the relative rarity of school shootings may do little to ease the pain while the images from Connecticut are still fresh, however, Gilboa said.

"The first thing I say, to be honest, is to turn off the television," Gilboa said. Following the news coverage minute-by-minute may seem helpful or as if it's somehow making the events less terrible, she said, but it's not.

"If it's causing you a great deal of anxiety, it is alright to step away from the computer and away from the television, and find out the entire story, as much as possible, in a few days," she said. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends limiting your child's exposure to media reports about traumatic events.

It may help to realize that fear and anxiety are normal reactions to an event like this, said Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, a psychologist at Georgetown University Medical Center who specializes in violence and trauma.

"That is the very first reaction when anything bad happens," Dass-Brailsford told Livescience. "You immediately think of the people that are close to you, and you want to reach out to them to make sure they are safe."

Talking with your kids about tragedy

Parents may also face the challenge of explaining the shootings to their own children. It's important to let kids express their emotions, Gilboa said, and to help them find ways to feel helpful. Just as adults may feel the urge to donate to charity or do something useful in the wake of a tragedy, kids can be comforted by simple actions like making cards for survivors or coming up with ways their school can help.

Helping your children focus on the goodness that often follows tragedy can also help them cope, Gilboa said. [Watch: How to Help Kids Cope with Trauma]    

Taking some control over your own emergency plans can also help ease both parents' and children's fears, Gilboa said. FEMA provides guidelines on how to prepare emergency plans and emergency kits in case of disasters that hit midday, when school and work keep families separated. Parents might also call their children's schools to find out their emergency protocols, Gilboa said.

Tips for talking with kids about difficult subjects in the news, according to the Public Broadcast Corporation, include: finding out what your child knows and understands by asking open-ended questions; explaining events in simple, age-appropriate terms; acknowledging the child's feelings and expressing reassurance.

In the case of fear about school shootings, Gilboa said, parents can explain to their children that the adults in their lives do everything they can to keep the kids safe.

Parents also need to take care of themselves in order to take care of their children, Dass-Brailsford said. Know your own emotions and handle them by talking with other parents, mental-health professionals or even by calling a parenting hotline, Gilboa and Dass-Brailsford suggested. Kids look to parents for emotional cues, and appearing overly anxious may make it more difficult for kids to cope. 

"Parents might get really, really anxious," Dass-Brailsford said. "Make sure you don't communicate that to your children. Communicate love and care, but don't communicate anxiety."

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct Dass-Brailsford's title from psychiatrist to psychologist.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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