How to talk to your kids about violence
My 11-year-old son seems to be very curious and upset about a recent shooting that he heard about over the weekend. He has been asking a lot of questions and has made comments that indicate he doubts his own safety away from home. I generally try to answer his questions briefly, then change the subject, so as not to dwell on it, but this seems to be making him more anxious. I don’t know if I am taking the best approach.
What do you say to your 12-year-old about the school shooting that she has just witnessed on the 5 p.m. news? How do you answer questions from your 9-year-old about the recent abduction and murder of a little girl? “Where is Oklahoma City, Mom?,” asks your 6-year-old son.
We try to shelter our children from the certain sadness of death. We attempt to protect them from the ugliness of tragedy that is often blasted across our media or overheard in conversations at school. But inevitably the time comes, be it by a question asked, a conversation overheard or natural curiosity about life, that we must talk to our children about these difficult and often disheartening subjects. What do we say? How much information is too much? Talking to our children about violence and tragedy is probably one of the most difficult aspects of parenting.
First and foremost, we must calm their fears and let them know that we are taking care of them. We can’t lie to them, but we don’t need to make them afraid either. Before deciding what approach to take and how much information to give, one needs to take into consideration the type of tragedy and how closely it relates to the child. If, for example, a close family member has committed suicide or been murdered, it is important that you take special precautions. The impact of suicide and homicide on survivors, especially children, can be far reaching.
Honesty is very important in these circumstances, but timing is crucial. If at all possible, postponing an explanation until things have settled down is best. But if the child has overheard the news and has some idea that the person has taken their own life or died in a tragic or violent way, then it should not be left to the child’s imagination to fill in the blanks. What a child can imagine may be far more traumatic to them than the actual facts.
If the tragedy that has occurred is not closely related to the child’s everyday life, you have more flexibility regarding the “when” and “how much” issue. The child’s age and development are also very important factors to consider regardless of how close or removed the tragedy is. Very young children obviously need very few details regarding the events. Much more emphasis should be on the child’s feelings and perception of what happened.
With older children, you can decide how many details to reveal based upon what kinds of questions they are asking and what you want them to learn from the situation. We cannot change tragedy after the fact, but once a child has become aware of the tragedy, it then becomes our responsibility as parents to move in and teach. Morals and values should become part of the conversation. This is a good time to talk about why it is wrong to hurt others. We learn that life is sacred only if we are taught this, and our children often get the wrong message from mass media and their peers.
Most of all, teach children to grieve in healthy ways. Tell them it’s OK to cry. Teach them the tools they need to cope with tragedy. Help them think of ways to take actions on their own behalf or on behalf of those who have been hurt. Collecting signatures for legislation that is important to their point of view or writing letters of comfort to family members of victims are wonderful ways to empower children who are experiencing anxiety as a result of violence and injustice.
– If you have questions or suggestions for the monthly Parent’s Corner, you can contact Tammy Taylor by e-mailing her at email@example.com. She is a parent educator at Family Support Council and the assistant coordinator of the PACT (Parents and Children Together) program.