Talking to Children About Violence
In response to recent tragedies, we wanted to provide some resources to help you work through the conversation with your children. Here you will find articles about appropriately addressing the topic for various age levels and also how to help your children understand their feelings. Please remember, if your child is ever in need of some additional support here at Agora, the Student Assistance Program (SAP) is always available. Just let your Family Coach know you are interested, and supports will be offered!
Tragic Events: Thoughts from Fred Rogers
In times of community or world-wide crisis, it’s easy to assume that young children don’t know what’s going on. But one thing’s for sure — children are very sensitive to how their parents feel. They’re keenly aware of the expressions on their parents’ faces and the tone of their voices. Children can sense when their parents are really worried, whether they’re watching the news or talking about it with others. No matter what children know about a “crisis,” it’s especially scary for children to realize that their parents are scared. (more- Fred Rogers on Tragedy)
How to talk to children about shootings: An age-by-age guide
Preschool-kindergarten: One-sentence story
“You have to figure out before you talk to them what story you want them to tell themselves,” she says. With young children, Gilboa recommends that parents keep their stories simple. These stories should reinforce parents’ beliefs. Perhaps, parents want their children to know that a bad man hurt people. Maybe parents want their children to know that someone with a serious illness felt angry and hurt people. “You are going to give a one-sentence story to anyone under 6,” she says. This might be a chance to change the conversation, too. Try to focus on the positives, such as the heroes of the story.
Elementary school children: Shield them
Again, parents need to decide on the takeaway message. Children in this age group will ask many more interrogative questions and parents need to decide how much they want to share. Gilboa stresses that parents should prevent their children from seeing pictures or the news because the images will stick with children longer than words. If children do see pictures, she recommends that parents show their children positive photos to counteract the negative. “Let’s see if we can replace those memories and balance it out by showing the positives and the amazing people who rushed to help,” she says.
Tweens: Listen to their feelings
Start the conversation by asking tweens if they heard about the latest shooting. “If you are going to talk [about] a fraught or laden topic … you start with a pretest. You are going to ask how they feel about it,” Gilboa says. If they have heard of it, listen to their feelings. If they haven’t heard of it, parents have an opportunity to share their beliefs while gaining better insight into their tweens. “[This becomes] a great conversation of their values and your values that do not focus on the particular gore [but] more on the person you are raising,” she says.
Teens: Look for solutions
Again, Gilboa says parents should ask their teens if they have heard of the latest tragedy and allow them to share their feelings. But teenagers will expect more. “Teenagers are looking for hypocrisy and solutions and this generation believes in collaboration and social justice. And they are going to ask ‘What are you doing,’” she says. “You can answer and then ask ‘what are you doing? What would you like to do? What can we do together?” Teaching teenagers to work toward change will help them be resilient, she says. She stresses that parents still need to listen to their teens’ feelings and display empathy. “I think for anyone action makes us feel effective,” Gilboa says. “What we want our kids to do when [they] see something wrong is to try to fix it.”
To guide parents through difficult discussions about school violence, the National Mental Health Association offers the following suggestions:
- Encourage children to talk about their concerns and to express their feelings. Some children may be hesitant to initiate such conversation, so you may want to prompt them by asking if they feel safe at school. When talking with younger children remember to talk on their level. For example, they may not understand the term “violence” but can talk to you about being afraid or a classmate who is mean to them.
- Talk honestly about your own feelings regarding school violence. It is important for children to recognize they are not dealing with their fears alone.
- Validate the child’s feelings. Do not minimize a child’s concerns. Let him/her know that serious school violence is not common, which is why these incidents attract so much media attention. Stress that schools are safe places. In fact, recent studies have shown that schools are more secure now than ever before.
- Empower children to take action regarding school safety. Encourage them to report specific incidents (such as bullying, threats or talk of suicide) and to develop problem solving and conflict resolution skills. Encourage older children to actively participate in student-run anti-violence programs.
- Discuss the safety procedures that are in place at your child’s school. Explain why visitors sign in at the principal’s office or certain doors remain locked during the school day. Help your child understand that such precautions are in place to ensure his or her safety and stress the importance of adhering to school rules and policies.
- Create safety plans with your child. Help identify which adults (a friendly secretary, trusted teacher or approachable administrator) your child can talk to if they feel threatened at school. Also ensure that your child knows how to reach you (or another family member or friend) in case of crisis during the school day. Remind your child that they can talk to you anytime they feel threatened.
- Recognize behavior that may indicate your child is concerned about returning to school. Younger children may react to school violence by not wanting to attend school or participate in school-based activities. Teens and adolescents may minimize their concerns outwardly, but may become argumentative, withdrawn, or allow their school performance to decline.
- Keep the dialogue going and make school safety a common topic in family discussions rather than just a response to an immediate crisis. Open dialogue will encourage children to share their concerns.
- Seek help when necessary. If you are worried about a child’s reaction or have ongoing concerns about his/her behavior or emotions, contact a mental health professional at school or at your community mental health center.
- Source: National Mental Health Association
National Association of School Psychologists (NASP): Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers