Talking to children about violence
Recently, I’m being asked more and more to consult with schools and child care providers about helping families have conversations about violence. At times like these, parents and caregivers are often at a loss. How much should I say? What words should I use? How do I address the fears? What physical symptoms should I look for.
Talking about fears in a developmentally appropriate way can actually help children feel more safe.
When violence happens, especially in a school shooting situation, children and parents can feel fearful and at risk. Knowing how to talk to a child can help ease their fear, give them a sense of personal control, and help them navigate the uncertainty that comes with high profile acts of violence.
Overall tips for talking with children about violence
There are some developmental differences you should consider when having these conversations (which we will discuss in the next section), but regardless of age, there are some tips to consider:
- Children want to feel safe. From the time we are infants, we look to adults to be our secure base, or our reference point for how safe we are. So even if you feel nervous or ill equipped to talk with a child, remember this key tip–help them feel safe. You can do this on a practical level by reviewing safety procedures, creating safety plans with the child, and helping them identify safe helpers to go to in an emergency. And you can also address it on an emotional level by simply being there for them, giving them comfort in the ways that feel calming for them. Giving them a comfort object, such as a stuffed animal, can help.
- Children want to feel heard and validated. It’s important that you validate their feelings, explaining that it’s ok to feel a whole host of feelings during a scary event, and also reminding them of ways they can feel safe and secure.
- Watch for nonverbal behavior. Children may not express their concerns and worries verbally, so it’s important to watch for nonverbal signs of stress. You know your child well, so don’t second guess yourself. If you see changes in behavior, sleep patterns, or appetite, seek help.
- Limit exposure to media. Monitor their viewing and the viewing that could occur in common areas. It’s also important to be mindful of any vengeful, hateful, and angry comments they might hear that could be misunderstood.
- Maintain self-care routines. A sense of normalcy and healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise are important as they navigate big emotions.
Developmentally appropriate ways to talk about violence
- Early elementary. At this age, conversations should be brief and simple, and you’ll want to keep the dialogue balanced with reassurances that they are safe and that they have people to go to for help when they need it. You can give simple, concrete examples of safety measures (e.g., safe adult helpers, door locks). Sesame Street in Communities has some excellent videos for 4-6 year old children to help role play these conversations in a developmentally appropriate way. Be mindful of the conversations you have with other adults in their earshot, as well.
- Late elementary/early middle school. Children may have more specific questions at this time, and their emotions may be more complex. They may need you to help them sort through stories and worries they hear from friends or through the media. Try asking open ended questions to see how much they know, rather than assume what they know. Questions like, “Did you hear anything about what happened in _____ today?” Reassure them and validate their feelings, letting them know that you are there for them when they need you.
- Late middle school/high school. At this age, teens are more formal in their thinking. They may ask questions about the root cause of violence or feel a need to be an advocate in some way, and it’s ok to say that you don’t have all the answers. The act of discussion and brainstorming is helpful in and of itself. Teens often feel helpless and want to find active ways to help. Helping them feel empowered can contribute to a feeling of safety for them, so brainstorm ways that they can advocate for safety in their schools, volunteer or help in the community, create art, or write their feelings down in a journal. Help them access support for their emotional needs.
Resources for talking with children about violence
- Sesame Street in Communities. Great videos and articles for parents, caregivers, providers, and children themselves.
- National Association of School Psychologists. Tips for parents and teachers, including developmentally appropriate advice.
- Mental Health America. More tips for parents.
- SAMHSA. Tips for grief and violence, including tips for adults.
- University of Minnesota Extension Program.
Remember that you have big feelings, too, and it’s ok not to have all the answers. It’s important for children to know that they aren’t navigating emotions and confusion alone. In those times of uncertainty, just remember to help children feel safe. Make sure that you have a support team for yourself, and get the self-care you need in order to be there for your kids.