It’s a scary world out there and with the many reports of violence and shootings in the news, the fear can be very real. Children, especially those prone to anxiety, might find it difficult to deal with the overwhelming emotions that come after yet another deadly incident in the news. The following are tips to help you talk about violence with your children.
Find out what your child knows and feels. Start any discussion based on what your child knows. If you have limited exposure at home, he or she might still find out details at school or through friends. You want to address your child’s biggest fears and to do that you need to know what his fears are. Open the discussion by asking questions. Then provide accurate and reassuring information.
Encourage your child to express feelings. Your child might feel sad, scared or angry over events in the news or that occurred locally. If you ignore the subject of violence or don’t address events, your child might feel he is facing it alone. While you want to make sure discussions are age appropriate, you also want to make sure your child knows he can count on you and talk to you about his fears. Don’t minimize or dismiss your child’s fears. Always validate your child’s concerns.
Limit exposure. In this age of the 24 hour news cycle, events can play out repeatedly in our own living rooms. If you turn on the news, watch briefly for pertinent information and then change the channel or turn the television off. Continuous exposure to frightening news can increase your child’s fears and anxiety.
Avoid discussing violence or violent events at bedtime. This can increase the chance of nightmares or insomnia. When you have these discussions, try to do so earlier in the day, when your child has time to process the information before trying to sleep.
Provide reassurance. Remind your child that there are many people working to keep her safe; besides you, the teachers and principal at school and policemen all work hard to keep everyone safe. Talk about the procedures at school that are in place to keep everyone safe. Remind your child that you are there to talk to should she feel scared or overwhelmed.
Be honest about your feelings. If you are sad or upset over events that occurred in your community or that you heard about on the news, let your child know how you feel. Sharing your feelings in an age appropriate way, can make your child feel less alone.
Continue discussions about violence and safety. Many times, we want to put an event in our past, it is painful and we don’t want to think about it. But chances are, your child is still thinking about it. Create an ongoing discussion of fear, violence and safety. Talk about what you do to keep safe, how to lookout for danger, how to report something that doesn’t seem right, how to contact the police. When you see violence on television or in your child’s video games, talk about the violence and help your child separate fiction from real life.
Use age appropriate discussions. When your children are young, simple explanations are best, such as “Sometimes bad people do things that we don’t understand but this is what we are doing to stay safe…” Older children might have stronger opinions about what has happened but they might also have stronger fears. Discuss concrete ideas of what they can do in situations and how they can prevent tragedies (by reporting strangers at school or threats to others.)
Talk about the people who are helping. When a tragedy strikes there is a lot of talk about the person (or people) that initiated the violence. Point out all the people that came to help: first responders, volunteers, doctors, nurses and people in the general community. Remind your child that no matter how much “bad” occurred, there are many good, kind people in this world.
Manage your own stress. If you are ready to fall apart, your child will feel as if his world is falling apart. Stay calm (even though you can share your feelings) and try to keep up the daily routines as much as possible. Your child will feel safer within his own daily structure.
Be on the lookout for warning signs of anxiety****. If your child is having a difficult time dealing with the situation, you might notice warning signs: trouble sleeping, grades slipping, a change in eating habits, school avoidance, excessive worrying or weepiness. If you notice signs of anxiety, talk to your doctor.
When addressing violence with your children, don't forget your older children. Just because a child is away at college or living on their own, it doesn't mean they don't need to hear the reassuring voice of mom or dad. Call to check in and remind them that even though you aren't there with them, you will always be there.
For more information:
The Long-Term Impact of School Shootings on Children and Teens
Signs of Anxiety in Children
Anxiety in Children
Managing Anxiety in School: Children, Teens and College Students
How to Talk to Your Kids about the Shootings
Talking to Your Children about the Recent Spate of School Shootings