How to talk to kids about the deadly New York City truck attack

Carole Reed was on the phone with her 13-year-old daughter Tuesday as her daughter walked out of school and into an unfolding attack in New York City that would leave eight people dead.

“Kids were screaming but I thought it was Halloween,” said Reed. “But I heard the urgency of their screaming. She was screaming, ‘He has a gun,’ and the phone hung up and I became very scared.”

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Reed’s daughter is an eighth-grade student at I.S. 289, a public school in Battery Park City that was at the end of its school day when a man in a rented Home Depot truck plowed into pedestrians and cyclists on a jogging and bike path.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty ImagesA police officer walks past the wreckage of a Home Depot pickup truck, a day after it was used in an terror attack, in New York City, Nov. 1, 2017.

Mark Lennihan/APA damaged school bus at the scene where a truck drove into a bike path, Oct. 31, 2017, in New York City.

The truck eventually came to a stop when it hit a school bus at Chambers Street, injuring two adults and two children, according to New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

One of the students is in critical condition.

The suspect was shot and taken into custody.

The attack, which is being investigated as an act of terror, left eight dead and at least a dozen injured.

It also left parents like Reed, whose daughter was not injured in the incident, wondering how to explain the violence to their children.

Carole ReedCarole and Tim Reed, of New York City, pose with their two children in this undated family photo.

“I think everybody is freaking out a little bit,” said Reed, who later reunited with her daughter at the school. “The two hours we spent there, parents were hugging each other, teachers were hugging the kids and counselors were available.”

Joan Kaufman, a professor of psychiatry and child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said having conversations about Tuesday’s attack with children of all ages — including as young as preschool — is a must for parents.

“There might be the feeling they want to protect their kids and not talk to them about it, but children are going to find out,” she said. “It’s better if information about the event comes from the parents.”

Shannon Stapleton/ReutersStudents walk past police line tape on their way to school a day after a man driving a rented pickup truck mowed down pedestrians and cyclists on a bike path alongside the Hudson River in New York City, Nov. 1, 2017.

Reed allowed her daughter to watch some of the news coverage of the attack and then made a point to turn the TV off. Her husband and son both came home quickly after learning of the attack and the family spent time together.

“We laid with our kids and talked to them about what happened and how grateful we were that they were OK,” she said. “We pointed out the people that were there for them that always keep them safe, that the school was there, the police were there and we were there.”

Reed’s decision to not allow her children to watch endless TV coverage of the attack is key for students on the scene and across the country, experts say.

“Do not have the television news on replaying and replaying video after video of what is going on,” said Lisa Spiegel, a licensed mental health counselor and the co-director of SoHo Parenting. “Taking in any kind of news should be done with care and caution and parental supervision.”

The fact that the attack took place in a neighborhood near schools and involved a school bus strikes a particular chord with parents and children alike.

ABC NewsA map of schools in the vicinity of the New York City attack that occurred on Oct. 31, 2017.

Spiegel, whose office is located 20 blocks where the attack occurred, said parents should keep the attack in proportion for children.

“Bring it down to the size it is, that a really bad guy hurt some people and killed people,” she said. “It’s not minimizing it but keeping it to its size and the idea of not sensationalizing because that’s when you get these overwhelming feelings of anxiety and helplessness.”

Parents should pay attention to their child’s sleep schedules and moods to see if the effects of the attack are lingering with them longer than is normal, according to Kaufman.

“Trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, more on guard and irritable, those are typical responses when something scary happens,” she said. “For most people and kids, with support, with safety, these responses go away. If they continue, it makes absolutely good sense to seek professional support.”

Shannon Stapleton/ReutersParents arrive to pick up children outside P.S./I.S.-89 school, after a man driving a rented pickup truck mowed down pedestrians and cyclists on a bike path alongside the Hudson River in New York City, Oct. 31, 2017.

Spiegel calls it being a “careful observer” of your child.

Reed said she checked in with her daughter and offered to allow her to stay home, but she wanted to return to school to be with her friends and try to return to life as normal.

“We believe terrorism is random and you can’t live your life being afraid of it. You have to move forward,” Reed said. “You can’t live your life in fear but you can be prepared. Sadly [kids] are prepared for all of this and the fact that this is part of their vernacular makes me so sad.”

Language to use with kids to offer comfort after an attack, according to experts:

More advice for parents from Lisa Spiegel:

Make your home feel like the safe haven: Turn the TV off. If you’re going to watch some of the news with an older child, you can do that together but no more than 15 minutes of news.

Do not assume your children don’t know about it: Assume your kid is ahead of you rather than thinking they don’t know what is going on. You can be the person who comforts them and shares accurate information with them.

Children feel better when they feel they can do something: Send a card to a New York City police officer to say thank you for taking care of us or write a letter to your senator or congressperson.

Parents do whatever it takes to take care of themselves: Showing up with a calm presence for your children is really important to give them some kind of safety.