Youth homicides are up in CT. How should you talk to your kids about a friend's death?

The drowning of a 7-year-old in Westport and the strangling of a 13-year-old in Manchester in recent days mark the latest of about a dozen homicides involving those age 18 and under this year in Connecticut.

Statistics from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner show Connecticut is slightly outpacing homicides for this age group compared with 2020. So far this year, there have been 11 homicides in this age group compared with 10 through June 2020.

Five of the recent homicides involving teens and children occurred within the past two months, OCME statistics show.

A drive-by shooting Sunday that killed an 18-year-old in Danbury was not included in the statistics provided Monday because Dr. James Gill, the state’s chief medical examiner, said the death had not yet been certified a homicide.

Deaths involving young people and the ensuing sorrow can be difficult to discuss with children who may have lost a classmate or friend, health experts said.

“We want to create that safe space, especially with teens,” said Dr. Robert Keder, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. “We want to show them that it’s OK to process and have feelings. If they’re not OK, they need to feel comfortable talking about it.”

Police continue to piece together what happened in a number of the deaths, including the drowning of 7-year-old Layla Malon at her family’s Westport home Thursday and the death of 13-year-old Zaniya Wright, who was found in the basement of a Manchester apartment building Friday morning after she had been strangled.

Police investigations remain ongoing for other killings involving children age 18 and under this year, including the shooting death of 16-year-old Ja’Mari Preston, of New Britain, who was fatally shot on Magnolia Street in Hartford on April 10. Preston was a student in the Capitol Region Education Council District.

Hours before Preston was shot, a 3-year-old boy, Randell Jones, was killed in a drive-by shooting blocks away on Nelson Street. Days later, a 19-year-old was charged with murder in connection with the shooting.

The shooting death of 18-year-old Tashawn Brown in May on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard in New Haven is among those deaths involving teens and children that have not yet led to an arrest.

“It’s hard. I don’t know if I’m going to get over it,” his mother, Tasha Brown said following the death.

Malon’s death in Westport appears to be at least the second connected with a possible murder-suicide in Connecticut this year. Last month, an 18-year-old was killed in a double murder-suicide in Windsor Locks, police said.

In many of the cases, killings have involved children in schools or who have recently left schools, thrusting districts to muster a team of social services workers to address grief.

In Westport, the local elementary school was closed Friday and Monday as the district developed a plan to address the emotional needs of students and staff. In Manchester, the death of Wright, a seventh-grade student at Illing Middle School, counselors were brought in to help students.

Yhameek Johnson, killed Sunday night in Danbury, previously attended New Milford schools, his family said. It was unclear if the school district was responding to the shooting in any way.

Health experts caution that how to address these complex emotions with children can vary widely by age.

For younger children, Keder said, it’s important to be direct, but not offer details.

“You can say they died,” he said, but don’t “overshare.”

With older children, parents can talk more directly about what happened, but without providing unnecessary details, he said.

Parents also need to keep a watchful eye on children and their emotional responses, said Laura Mutrie, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical assistant professor of social work at Quinnipiac University.

“Parents need to look out for any changes in behaviors or feelings,” she said. “It’s really about how these kids are experiencing this and how they internalize what’s happening.”

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, there are multiple common grief reactions in children that adults can look for, including decreased appetite, difficulty sleeping, a decreased ability to concentrate, increased sadness, and social withdrawal.

Young people also sometimes feel anger toward the deceased for leaving them, she said.

Mutrie said it’s important for parents to help their children process these “big feelings.”

She also recommended limiting how much children are exposed to TV or other news coverage of these events. She added that monitoring media intake is harder with teenagers, who tend to be more independent. But she recommended that parents try to talk to even their older children about what they are reading, particularly online, and make sure they get accurate information.

There are some actions that parents can take regardless of a child’s age, Keder said.

“The biggest message (parents can offer), which will be consistent through all ages is ‘You’re safe. You’re here. We’re with you,’” he said.