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Telling Children The Truth When Tragedy Strikes

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By Rebecca Sheir

Three men are under arrest in connection with last month's murder of a D.C. middle-school principal. Investigators say Brian Betts met the young men on what's been called a 'sex chat line.' So discussing the case with students could be tricky.

The most important thing, says Marguerite Kelly, author of the "Family Almanac" column in the Washington Post, is for parents and teachers to be honest with young people.

"They're going to get information," says Kelly. "And do you want them to get it from the playground? From whispers in the hall? From somebody who doesn't know anything about sex or homosexuality? No, you don't."

What you do want, she says, is to use that information to teach a lesson.

"This will bring home to these kids, 'hey, you don't get online, you don't agree to meet somebody,'" she says. "And it doesn't have anything to do with homosexuality or heterosexuality. You just don't do it!"

But in Kelly's view, just as important as what you say, is how you go about saying it. And for Kelly, asking questions is key. Her personal favorite is, simply, "What do you think?"

"It's a very respectful way to treat a teenager," she says, "[or] treat any child: 'what do you think?'"

And ideally, you ask these questions, and allow the child to comment, before you offer your own thoughts.

"Because the kid will shut down, say, 'mm-hmm, yeah, right,' and then won't say anything else," says Kelly. "And so you will walk away, wondering if the child believes what you said, and also, what the child thinks."

But most important, Kelly says, is supporting children as they grieve. And helping them remember, and focus on, the positive qualities of this man who, by so many accounts, was such a beloved mentor, educator and friend.

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