Experts: Use caution when talking to kids about Westport murder-suicide

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WESTPORT — In the wake of the deaths of a local mother and daughter, experts said parents need to weigh the appropriateness of difficult conversations with young children about this incident.

According to the state’s chief medical examiner, Tracy Do died by suicide from “sharp injuries of torso and extremities,” and her daughter, Layla Malon, 7, died from drowning at their Lyndale Park home on Thursday. Malon’s death has been ruled a homicide, the medical examiner said.

With a case like this, parents need to tread lightly when talking to their young — possibly grieving — children, said Dr. Andre Newfield, chairman of psychiatry for St. Vincent’s Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Services.

“I absolutely don’t think giving details of an incident (such as this) to children that young is a good idea,” he said. “There’s no place for them to deal with the realities of what’s impossible for most adults to understand.”

In a note sent to families last week, Westport Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice said the district would provide parents with resources on how to speak with children about the tragedy and “whether or not it is age-appropriate to do so.”

But children of this age are still going to ask questions when a peer dies, and parents can respond without providing unnecessary details, said Dr. Robert Keder, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

“We don’t have to be blunt, but we don’t have to be dishonest,” he said. “We can say she’s not here anymore or that she’s passed away.”

Classes were canceled Friday and Monday at Coleytown Elementary School, where Malon attended. But parents were able to bring their children to the school on Monday to collect their belongings and see their classrooms and teachers one last time, Scarice said.

The mood at the school was somber Monday morning, and families arrived one or two at a time, then quietly left.

Security was positioned outside the school to prevent unwanted visitors.

In his memo, Scarice assured parents “there will be no discussion of the recent tragedy while students visit their teachers and collect their belongings.”

Malon’s death is among about a dozen statewide homicides involving those 18 and under this year. Keder said it’s even harder when these incidents occur at the end of an academic year since schools would normally help provide the proper trauma response.

Without that outlet available, he said, parents need to carefully monitor not just their children’s behavior, but their own response.

“If we’re having a hard time coping with it as adults, then the children are going to have a hard time coping with it,” he said.