Amid wall-to-wall news coverage and an increasingly connected world, parents watching the Newtown, Conn., school shooting Friday may have to explain the horror to their young children more rapidly, and with more context, than ever before.
Even young children are almost certain to hear news surrounding the massacre of 27 people - most of them elementary students - and they'll crave reassurance and routine, several experts said Friday.
"The likelihood of kids' not hearing about this is pretty slim," said Nicole Quinlan, a pediatric psychologist with Geisinger Health System. Even if they don't watch TV, "kids are going to pick up that something is going on," she said.
Young children lack the ability to put news in context, she said. While an adult can understand that the Connecticut shooting was a rare, distant event, a child in Pennsylvania may not grasp that he's unlikely to be affected.
"It truly is a rare event. Parents, as much as we may be concerned, have to be confident," Quinlan said.
Penn State psychology professor Karen Bierman, director of the school's Child Study Center, repeated the words "stranger" and "mistake."
Youngsters around the victims' ages need to understand that the shooter wasn't a parent or authority figure to his targets, she said. And instead of framing the shooting as a random act of murder, parents can ease children's minds by saying the shooter made a mistake, choosing violence over discussion.
Many child observers will assume the victims somehow caused their own deaths by misbehaving, she said.
"Kids have that kind of almost magical thinking. For kids, it's almost comforting to make sense of it," Quinlan said.
Mass killings can hit children particularly hard when they take place where kids go regularly, whether at a school or a movie theater, Bierman said.
"It makes you feel vulnerable, that the world is a vulnerable place. They wonder, 'Why did this happen? Will it happen to me?'" she said.
While adults might resign themselves to a belief that the world is simply a dangerous place - one in which bad things often happen to good people - hearing that kind of cynicism too early can be hard on a young mind, said Denis Navarro, a psychologist at Altoona Regional.
"How do you relate that to a kindergartener? Do you want them to be looking over their shoulder every minute of every day?" Navarro said. "The key thing is for them to feel safe, to go about their routine."
Parents should reassure their children that they're safe at school and at home, he said.
A key question, however, is whether parents should beat the news to the punch, telling their kids about the shootings before they get the chance to hear it from friends.
"I can't imagine saying, 'Sit down, I've got to tell you something.' It's almost like you're planting a seed in a child's head," said Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at the Teaching School of Columbia University in New York.
"The first message I would give to parents is to try to not let children see the news on television, if possible," she said.
While other experts disagreed - saying parents should tell children whether they see the news or not - none suggested that round-the-clock news coverage or sudden overprotectiveness could do anything but harm.
Both children and adults need a break from TV news coverage, Navarro said, and both crave a sense of altruism and decency after seeing tragedies like Friday's.
But pulling them from school or altering their routines out of a sudden sense of fear will only pass that feeling on to youngsters, Quinlan said.
"Kids will pick up on that," she said. "What helps is seeing parents manage their emotions."
As long as children maintain their routines and get reassurance that they're not in danger, they'll likely move on without problems, Quinlan said.
"Kids are pretty resilient," she said.