The Newtown Tragedy : A Simple and Ongoing Response for our Children

We are so very grateful to Kim John Payne for sharing  this article about parenting, teaching and caregiving in these challenging times.  Click here for a printable copy to share with friends.


SimplicityBy Kim John Payne, M.ED
& Davina Muse, LMHC

An opportunity for us as parents and caregivers to offer our children a reassuring and loving presence in the days and weeks ahead 



Your children may encounter others this week who know more about the tragedy in Newtown than they do, from direct exposure to media or from overhearing adult conversations, or from other children.


They may come to you for more information, explanations, clarifications…this seeking to understand and integrate may take some time. This is an opportunity for parents and teachers to offer wisdom and loving presence, to meet each child in the way he or she needs to be met. Please consider the age of your child and how any of this information may impact him or her – as their parents you are the best expert on how to protect and strengthen your own children and your family. They need our reassurance that most people are good; our loving presence and deep quiet listening may be more helpful than a lot of explanations. Children can, and do, work things out for themselves according to their own abilities, over time, in the warmth and calmness of adult presence.


However, if your child either has not heard about this terrible event or has not taken it in, it may be best to “let it be,” knowing that when your child does want to speak about this, you will be ready. You may be wondering about your child having heard about this and not speaking about it. For the younger child, we encourage you to watch your child’s play very carefully. For the older elementary aged child, usually the signs to watch are more in their behavior and attitude. Both play and behavior may be a guide to what is going on inwardly for your child.



Simplicity Parenting has, at its core, pathways that give direction for everyday family life. However in moments like these they also provide clear and deep orientation for a child who may be in need of reassuring warmth and safety.


Soul Fever

Parents will want to observe their children even more lovingly and carefully than usually, if the children have been exposed to a lot of information about this tragedy. Some children may come with difficult questions; others may act out what they can’t integrate, in play. As much as possible allow this, so long as it is safe. You will want to adjust your family life – by simplifying – if your child seems stressed or anxious, nervous and generally soul-fevered.



Some children may become a little more challenging to you in terms of their behavior. What they are likely doing is looking for your warm but firm boundaries. It is tempting to “cut them some extra slack” at this time. However, loving boundaries, perhaps a little more gently applied, will help them feel safe, as they reinforce the way that your family defines itself. Also, a special note about transitions like bed- to- dressed, home-to-school, or play time-to-dinner time…These can tricky at the best of times but in potentially anxious days like those that may lie ahead, try giving extra time for transitions. Previewing ahead of time how the transition is going to happen and what you expect may also be helpful.


In General…

For more extroverted children… they may act “out” a little more and push the family envelope. They may be more provocative towards you and siblings.

For introverted children… they may go inward and become a little quieter or perhaps get stuck or stubborn.




Filtering Out Adult Concerns


We recommend – urge –  that children not be exposed to news reporting on screen or radio, or adult conversations about this event. Young children do not really grasp that repeated announcements are about one single event. Each time they hear a news report or overhear an unguarded adult conversation, the risk is that it sets off a brain based “cascade” of fight-or-flight hormones which can significantly delay their healing.

What to Filter In…Alternatively, reach into your store of favorite family stories. Tell the familiar beloved stories of Grandpa or Grandma, or maybe some from when you were little (especially the ones where you were naughty). These old stories are familiar and deeply securing to a child.  


The filtering out mantra applies here more than ever. Before you say anything in front of your child ask yourself three simple questions.

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it kind?
  3. Is it necessary?

Unless your instinct gives you a very clear “yes” to each of these questions, chances are it is way better to defer the comment until your child is not present.



It may help to light a candle or do some other simple ritual so that children have the understanding, “There is something we can do to help.”  Make sure that bedtimes are especially regular, slow and peaceful, so that children have plenty of deep sleep in which to process what has happened in the day. And finally consider strengthening the rhythms that you already have in family life. In these kinds of situations familiarity brings safety. Rhythm quietly and invisibly says to a child, “There are things I can count on. All is well here in this family.”



Children may need more time with parents, more down time, in the next few days and weeks. If your child seems upset by the tragedy, be prepared to quietly, without explanation, simplify your schedule, in favor of more family down time and togetherness. You are in charge of the safety, health and peace of mind of your family! Children do not easily process emotional upset when they are kept busy. This might seem counter intuitive but distracting and detouring a child away from upset, risks having them circle back to the source and can bring about a very difficult loop of prolonged feelings of uneasiness and even upset.



A simple, beautiful, calm bedroom or play space, and home, will help all children to play more deeply and to be at peace. Play outside can be especially helpful. Try to keep the toys, books, clothes a little more tidy than usual. On a deeper level this helps a child have a sense of orderliness in their world, just a time when this is needed.




How to respond to questions?

Our deepest longing for our child is that they feel safe.  Talking about “safety” may very well raise the question within the child, “Why are they talking about safety? Is it because I am not safe?”


By being gatekeepers and protectors we can create a reassuring environment and atmosphere in which children can feel safe.  This may well be more effective than talking about safety, even in reassuring ways.   


However, if you feel the need to respond with words, very simple answers to children’s questions, can be given, without going into detail or long explanations.  This may help your child best to integrate this difficult experience in a healthy way.  


Here are some guidelines that may help in case you find yourself at a loss to begin with:


When speaking…

Be sure to use language and words that you know your child already understands, so that he or she can easily absorb what you say. Speak in your normal familiar voice.


If you are asked a question that you are not sure about how to answer, give yourself time, “That is a big question, honey. I’ll think about that”. As the day goes on, assess whether the child still needs an answer. Many questions that children have come and go, and may not actually need answering by us. Often just speaking the question or comment to you, and knowing you have heard them is enough for our child. Sometimes they may find their own satisfying answers in play.


What you could say… 

  • “Sometimes – almost never – bad things happen… everyone is very sorry about this…. and there are lots of loving people helping those families now.”
  • “It is hard for any one to understand this… and we can help by sending our loving thoughts/ prayers to those families.”
  • For the younger child…”You will understand this better when you are bigger. Right now we can send our loving thoughts to those families. We will light a candle for them this evening…”  



Many faith communities are offering guidance to parents and families, based on their own particular world view. You may want to ask your faith leaders for support if you have questions they could answer or recommendation reading.


Please use the blog as a forum to share children’s questions and responses that seemed to be helpful to them, to help other parents.





Kim John Payne is the author of Simplicity Parenting, Games Children Play, and the soon to be published Beyond Winning With Whole Child Sports.  He is the Director of The Simplicity Project.


Davina Muse is the Director of Simplicity Parenting Group Leader Training and is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with a specialization in Family Counseling.

Posted on December 21, 2012 in Children and Society, Family Life and Parenting

  • says:

    Thank you, Kim, for sharing this with Christopherus readers.
    One thing I just want to add: one of the hardest things for us as parents when faced with enormously difficult issues which threaten our children – whether directly or indirectly – is to be able to lovingly differentiate between what is our pain and our fear, and what is our child’s. Sometimes we fear for them – and they, sensing our deep emotions, react, not out of their own place, but out of their connection with us. Other times our fears and anxieties can get in the way of their process. As Kim says, different children react and deal with trauma in different ways. It can be hard for a parent to know how to respond to a child who does not react in a way that they, the parent, finds familiar or comfortable.
    Indeed, children can seem callously indifferent or have wildly inappropriate reactions to tragedies. But inappropriate only from a point of view which forgets 1) to take full cognisance of the child’s age and 2) to truly understand that children are not small adults and that their emotional life is very, very different from our own.
    So the key in all this is to struggle with our own pain and, whilst always being authentic and never pretending to feel or think what is not true for us, to be clear about the boundary between our own confusion and pain and our child’s. This can mean that we say to a child “I just don’t know why someone could kill children – some things are so big that Daddy and I and other grown-ups just have to work very hard to understand them.” Or we might need to say “I am crying right now because of the children who were killed. It’s ok to feel really sad about that”.
    And of course one’s own spiritual path can be a source of comfort during such times. It is important for children to see their parents praying and to feel the certainty that surrounds those who have a strong faith life. And for those who don’t? Then faith and trust in the basic goodness of human beings, despite – or even because – of wrongs and tragedies, can shore one up in an uncertain world. And the stronger we are in our inner life, in our convictions and trust, then the stronger our children will grow as they experience the safety of adult’s boundaries and adult’s sureness in the basic goodness of the world.And then they will be able to face the tragedies of life, and not be overwhelmed by them.

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