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Answering a child's concerns

Most parents are used to answering unusual questions from their offspring; but how do they explain why a young man walked into a school and killed 28 children and staff?

It was a question parents confronted over the weekend and will continue to wrestle with in coming weeks, according to child psychologists.

Specialists in childhood behaviour say parental responses should vary according to the age and temperament of the child.

Davina Sharry, teacher and childhood behavioural specialist, said adults should be honest but not too honest.

"Parents need to explain it in very simple terms but they need to vet what they say," she said.

"I wouldn't even use terms like death, killing, murder and so on. I would say, something went wrong in a school in America and children were hurt. Avoid going into too much detail but be truthful."


Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg agreed, saying parents should wait for their children to ask questions and keep their answers straightforward.

"You need to keep your explanation developmentally appropriate," he said. "Be brief, be simple and be factual without going into too much detail."

Parents of children not yet in school are best advised to switch off the television, computer and mobile devices.

"I would be standing guard over the remote control for the three- and four-year-olds – they really don't need to hear about this at that age," she said.

Equally, adult conversations about the shooting can wait until after the children have been tucked up in bed.

"Children tend to take emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives," Mr Carr-Gregg said.

"Obviously, people are just shattered by this but if adults are talking about it they need to keep those conversations out of the earshot of young children."

Australian children also need comfort and reassurance that such tragedies are rare, said Phil Robinson, chair of the Australian Infant, Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health Association.

"If children ask questions about it, talk to them, find out what their concerns are and reassure them," he said.

Teachers were also bracing themselves for questions as many children returned for the final week of school.

The president of the NSW Teachers Federation, Maurie Mulheron, said teachers were well trained in helping children to interpret difficult subject matter.

"The worst thing to do would be to deny a conversation with a young person about this," he said.

"But it has to be discussed in context and in a way which reassures the child. Teachers are experienced and well placed to help children understand the way in which we live.

"They can help children understand and interpret issues and events which are shocking and difficult. It's not something they would baulk at."