How to Talk With Kids About Violence
When tragedy strikes, here are expert tips on how you and your nanny should explain it to your children.
The Boston Marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting...lots of horrible things have been on the news lately. It's hard enough for you to understand and try to deal with them -- how do you talk about them with your kids?
Parents and caregivers often have to have difficult conversations with kids -- it's part of their job description. Kids of all ages have questions and turn to moms, dads and nannies for answers.
Speaking about the unspeakable is difficult and daunting, especially when young emotions are involved. It's a delicate task. Many questions arise: How young is too young to talk about violence? How can you protect and shield children's innocence, while still making sure they understand the situation? How do you reassure them these horrible things won't happen to them?
Unfortunately, the world bombards our kids with violent images via television, movies, video games and the news. Unless you want to raise your children in a bubble, there comes a point when parents must decide how to talk about heavy subjects with their kids in order to alleviate concerns, clear inevitable confusion and reassure kids of their safety. But how you go about it takes careful consideration.
Jenny Hoffman, a LCSW in private practice, blogger and mom of two, and Jami Winkel, director at the Relational Center of Los Angeles and licensed marriage and family therapist, offer several important suggestions on how to talk to kids, depending on their age.
And for more advice, learn how to talk with kids about natural disasters.
At this age, try to avoid it all together: kids are just too young. Winkel says that parents and nannies shouldn't talk about any violent incident while kids are in earshot: "Children can feel tension and sense unexpressed emotion better than adults. They are so attuned to their caregiver's emotional state." Turn off the news when young kids are nearby and try to keep things normal.
Hoffman recommends waiting for your children to bring up the topic. If they initiate the discussion, "remain calm and answer any question they may have." Find out what they know and then discuss it in simple language that makes them feel safe and dispels any confusion.
Elementary School Age
For children in elementary school, Hoffman believes it's best to explain what happened before they hear it elsewhere -- particularly from a friend. "Use age-appropriate language and think about what information your child can handle. Tell them you love them and are always here for them to answer any questions they have." Talk about your own feelings and let kids know that it's okay to feel scared or uncertain.
Keep in mind, though, that "we, as parents, tend to provide more detailed answers than our children need or want," she says. "Let your child know that they are safe and ask if there is anything you can do to help them feel safer."
Winkle, too, emphasizes keeping your answers simple and offering reassurance and containment: "we live in a busy and unpredictable world, but little ones need to know and be reassured that they are always safe and protected."
Middle School and High School Age
For pre-teens and teens, who are likely to know what happened before you even talk to them, it's still important to let them know you are there for them if they want to talk or have questions.
"Ask them a lot of questions about what they know or don't know about the situation, so you get a sense of how they are making meaning out of what happened and can tailor your conversation to address their specific needs and fears," says Winkle.
Hoffman stresses that it's important to "let them know they may hear misinformation about an event and to please let you know if anything is confusing them." She says that "children of this age may not verbally respond to you, give you a hug, etc., but they are still listening and the conversation is still important to have."
Whatever age your child is, try to be as present as possible after a tragic event, and leave the television and other electronic devices off to limit exposure. Make sure that you, your partner and your nanny and babysitter are all on the same page about what to tell kids. Going forward, keep an eye out for changes in your child's behavior, anxiety, nightmares or other signs that you make have to talk more about what happened or look into a professional counselor.
Get more tips on how to have difficult conversations with kids.
And don't forget yourself in all this either. "If you are emotionally overwhelmed, get your own support and talk with friends and family, so that when it's time to talk with your kids, you can still provide a safe and containing space for them so their needs are met," Winkle suggests.
"Our society is so desensitized to violence and weapons through movies, video games and real-life situations," she says. "Sensitizing young people to the reality that weapons hurt people and reiterating that we don't like being hurt, nor hurting others, will plant seeds of empathy and a healthy attitude toward these insidious issues."
After the Boston Marathon tragedy, a meme featuring a quote by Fred Rogers from "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" started circulating on social media sites. It is something that every parent should keep in mind when talking to kids during times like this: "When I was a young boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers -- so many caring people in this world."
Meredith Johns is a freelance writer in St. Louis.