It's lunchtime and Janet Hoffman's 11-year-old son comes home in a few hours. The San Jose mom is pacing around, not sure how she plans to tell her son that 26 people, most of them young children, were shot to death Friday in a Connecticut elementary school massacre.
"I don't want him to be in fear of going to school himself," Hoffman said. "I'm going to ask him what his feelings are to see where his head is at. I mean you can't lie to him, right? And say something like that could never happen at his school? ... I don't know. I really don't know. Maybe tell him that there's just some evil in this world that you can't explain."
All around the Bay Area, parents and educators fretted over how to broach the horrific subject with children. There are no right or wrong ways to talk trauma with youngsters, but children 7 and younger require special care to make them feel safe, said Barbara McClung, Oakland Unified School District's coordinator of behavioral health initiatives."If they haven't heard about it, it's probably better not to share the news with them," McClung said of toddlers. "Younger kids really lack the coping skills. This is something so far beyond our control for little kids."
But if they ask about it, be open and supportive, McClung said. "Ask them if they have any questions. What are they thinking and feeling? Try and help the child articulate and be an open listener above all things," said McClung, who distributed English- and Spanish-language trauma tip sheets to Oakland schools Friday.
She said it's important to share information at their level. Older children may hear and see the news, or hear adults discussing the situation, which can be traumatizing. And if they ask why it happened, be honest.
"The fact is we really don't know the answer to that and to make something up will not help," she said. "Talk with them about their fears and talk to them about how they can be safe in their own environment."
The massacre in Connecticut made Melia Franklin, an Oakland mother, reflect on how difficult it was to talk to her young children -- then in kindergarten and third grade -- about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
They sat down as a family that night, she said, and cried together. She told them that the world is not always safe, but the people close to them -- their family, teachers, crossing guards -- were protecting them. And she told them that people are good at heart and, mostly, do take care of each other, but that sometimes "people get sick and do terrible things."
"It comes down to how do you discuss evil? And I don't," she said. "I don't focus on the concept of bad people. I think that's scarier than the notion that they need help."
Meanwhile, Bay Area school administrators fielded calls Friday, trying to calm worried parents.
Administrators in the Antioch and Brentwood school districts said they were inundated with calls from parents in the hours after the shooting, so much so that Brentwood School District Superintendent Merrill Grant sent out an automated call to parents of the 8,400 students in the district, informing them the district was aware of the incident and had emergency procedures in place in case of any such attacks locally.
By the final school bell, flags at Antioch and Brentwood districts were at half-staff, as teachers and administrators did their best to treat this day as any other.
"We're all very sad right now. It hits real close to home," said Essence Phillips, the principal at John Muir Elementary School in Antioch. "Just this week, we had three hours of practice on how to respond to an emergency situation, whether it be earthquake or something like this tragedy. You have to prepare now."
Administrators advised teachers not to share the news with students, and grief counselors were available if deemed necessary by school officials.
"We're choosing not to tell the kids, because we feel this is something that is best shared by the parents," Phillips said. "We don't want to create fear where there doesn't need to be any."
McClung said that children often want to move on from tragedies faster than adults, and it's important that the family resume their regular activities as soon as possible. And if a child's behavior changes dramatically, parents should seek help from a school psychologist or counselor.
San Leandro schools Superintendent Cindy Cathey sent a message to parents reinforcing security policies and offering counseling support. She assured them the staff is being "extra vigilant in their observations and general security measures," and that San Leandro police were adding patrols to campuses Friday.
"Please know that our district employees are aware of the protocols in place to report and respond to unusual circumstances," Cathey wrote.
Teachers in the Lafayette School District did not discuss the tragedy Friday with students, but plan to discuss support options over the weekend, said Superintendent Fred Brill. The district participated in comprehensive emergency drills earlier this year.
At Tomorrow Montessori preschool in San Jose, with the oldest kids only 5, the tragedy was not brought up.
"Mostly, what we hope for at this age, and what most families choose at this age, is not to discuss it with their kids," said Joyce Brown, preschool director. "Not to hide from it, but not to go into lengthy conversations. Because developmentally, their ability to understand and grasp it is not quite there yet."
By early afternoon, Hoffman still was not sure how she would talk with her 6th-grader.
"How can you explain this to your children and make any sense," she said, "when it doesn't make any sense to the adults?"
Staff writers Katy Murphy, Rick Hurd, Bruce Newman and Jennifer Modenessi contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
Six things you can do to help your child after a trauma:
1. Let your children know they are safe. Younger children may need extra hugs (as well as your teens).
2. Allow children to talk about their feelings and worries if they want to. Let them know that being a little scared and upset is normal. If they don't want to talk, they could write a story or draw a picture.
3. Go back to everyday routines. Help your child get enough sleep, eat regularly, keep up with school and spend time with friends.
4. Increase time with family and friends. Children who get extra support from family and friends seem to do better after upsetting events. Try reading, playing sports or games, or watching a movie together.
5. Take time to deal with your own feelings. It will be harder to help your child if you are worried or upset. Talk about your feelings with other adults, such as family, friends, clergy, your doctor or a counselor.
6. Keep in mind that people in the same family can react in different ways. Remember, your child's feelings and worries might be different from yours. Brothers and sisters can feel upset, too.
Source: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network