Advice On How Kids, Adults Can Cope With Tragedy

A lot of parents are at a loss for words when it comes to explaining the Sandy Hook shooting to their kids. Host Michel Martin speaks to Suzanne McCabe of Scholastic about advice on how families can move forward from disasters. McCabe also talks about her own experiences dealing with tragedy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll hear from singer Vicki Yohe about her interesting take on the world of gospel music and we'll hear why she thinks her success with African-American fans has possibly cost her a following among her white fans. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to talk a little bit more today about the shooting last week in Connecticut. And that's because it's something that adults and children are still struggling to understand, even possibly to talk about. So we thought it would be a good time to check in again with someone who has a great deal of experience helping to explain painful and difficult things to the youngest people in the audience.

Suzanne McCabe is the editor-at-large for Scholastic's classroom magazines. They're geared to students at all grade levels, from pre-K to high school and they cover many of the same stories covered in adult media from earthquakes to hurricanes to terrorist attacks. And Suzanne McCabe is with us once again. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

SUZANNE MCCABE: Thank you very much, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, Suzanne, you've supervised coverage for all kinds of tough stories but I have to ask, is this one tougher because kids are at the center of it?

MCCABE: It really is a very, very tough one and we've all been struggling with it, you know, since last Friday, how to tell our readers about it, and how to reassure them that they are safe, and at the same time give tips to parents and teachers who have to talk with the children about this horrible tragedy.

MARTIN: What have you come up with? Are there some general guidelines that you can share with us about how to approach this? I'm guessing that even if you're not producing, you know, media, that might be helpful.

MCCABE: Right. Well, we did write a story online on Sunday just so teachers would have that when children went back to school. Essentially, we tell parents that it's most important to listen to their children. You know, many parents across the country have been affected and upset by what has happened but it's important for them not to project their own fears and anxieties on to their children.

That they listen very carefully to them, maybe ask a few questions, and let the child dictate the conversation.

MARTIN: What about - I know it's a hard thing for a journalist to ask another journalist, but, you know, what about a media blackout? I think the instinct of a lot of adults at a time like this is to try to keep the news from the kids entirely. What do you say to that?

MCCABE: I would say for young children absolutely. I remember reading that after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 that young children who saw repeated images of the towers falling thought that it was happening each time, that they don't have a real sense, clear grasp, on reality, so these events being repeated over and over the same topic, they could take it as happening again and again.

For older children you certainly also want to limit media but perhaps parents could watch a little bit of the news with them and then discuss and put into context the events that are going on.

MARTIN: That, I think, is the thing that a lot of people are struggling with. You can't shy away from the fact that kids seem to have been targeted here and that is, I think, the very thing that is causing the adults to have such a tough time, with this story I mean.

MCCABE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So what about that?

MCCABE: Unquestionably. Well, first you can reassure your child that everything is being done to assure their safety. And then you could also channel, you know, the concerns and anxieties you and your child may have by, for example, writing cards and letters to the families of Newtown, volunteering for people who need help.

So these are ways that young people can take action to sort of empower them to, you know, accept that this was horrific but some good can come out of something horrible.

MARTIN: Your instinct, or is it the instinct of the editors that you should wait for the child to bring it up before you talk about it? Or do you wait to be asked?

MCCABE: My sense is you bring it up. You ask the child what they may have heard about it and you know that your children going to school are possibly going to hear rumors or misinformation. So you want to be the one who controls the dialogue and controls what the child knows and make sure that they have accurate information and then step back and listen to your child. And observe, you know, the younger children when they're playing.

Maybe they want to draw pictures or express themselves in other ways. They may not want to talk about this. They may, you know, most kids just want to be kids. So just give them the information and let them go on about their lives. That's a pretty good marker for many of them.

MARTIN: One point that you've made continually in our conversations is that adults should try not to push their own anxieties onto the kids. But, again, I have to ask, how do you do that?

(LAUGHTER)

MCCABE: That's extremely tough.

MARTIN: How exactly do you that?

MCCABE: Instead of, you know, talking with the children or watching the news in front of them, talk to other adults and get your feelings and fears and sadness. Talking with other adults is really your best way to put things in perspective and to cope with your own feelings of loss and just horror that parents would lose their children in such a horrific way.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go for today, I wanted to talk about the holidays. You know, we're still in the middle of holiday celebrations for many people who do celebrate the holidays. And I know, you know, for you as a survivor - you had lost a family member in 9/11, which is something that many people will have heard if they've heard our previous conversations. And again, we're so sorry for that loss. Do you have some thoughts about facing the holidays while you're still processing or thinking through something so sad?

MCCABE: I remember the first holiday after 9/11. We tried to do something a little different. You know, started new traditions or went to different places than we had. We typically would just get together as a family. So we visited with friends, and that was a way, I think, for my nieces and nephew also to just have a little bit of a different way to approach the holiday without their dad.

And it worked very nicely for us. Also now my own family, since we're near Hurricane Sandy victims, we're trying to do a lot of help and volunteering just to see them through. And that's a way for us to give back for all of the people who helped us so much.

MARTIN: Suzanne McCabe is editor at large for Scholastics classroom magazines. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Suzanne McCabe, thank you so much for speaking with us once again. Our very best wishes to you and to your family for the holidays. We hope they'll be good ones.

MCCABE: Thank you so much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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