In the present day, it is difficult to insulate our children from the fear, violence, and discontent constantly broadcasted through radio, film, and television. Especially on social media, graphic and violent information can easily be amplified to reach thousands of viewers of all ages. Children may feel afraid for their own safety, or the safety of their loved ones when constantly bombarded with such messages. The recent Florida school shooting was not only tragic but has since reignited the debate on how to approach the topic of violence among children. Exposure to violence, whether direct or indirect, can have serious effects on your child's mental health. If such concerns are ignored or downplayed, it can lead to severe anxiety, panic attacks, and even depression.
As a parent, how can you talk to your children about this sensitive topic in a way that doesn't alienate them? Below, we'll cover a few important points on how to talk about violence with your child:
1. Make Sure Your Children Know They Are Safe
Most importantly, children cannot fall victim to seeing the world the way some media outlets portray it; kids must realize their world is, in fact, an overwhelmingly safe place, and while danger may sometimes arise, they always have resources available to protect, guide, and educate them. It may be helpful to ask questions about your child's fear or sadness; are they afraid at school? Afraid for a loved one? Remember to remind them that it is OK to feel this way, but at the same time reassure them about the safety of their immediate environment. Children should realize that daycares and schools are safe spaces. Apart from parents, neighbors, and teachers, there are police officers and emergency personnel whose jobs are to keep society safe. Depending on your child's age, this may be a good time to discuss the difference between possibility and probability.
2. Have a Committed Discussion
Especially for young children, questions about violence or tragedy occurring in the world can't properly be explained through a quick explanation or cheerful redirection. It is often difficult even for grown adults to truly understand the underpinnings of everyday violence and tragedy that we encounter, and this is why adults must make sure the conversation occurs in a safe space where a child can ask questions without fear of judgment. Children must be able to encounter these difficult subjects as they mature without fear of questioning, confronting, or exploring.
3. Remember a Child's Age
As a corollary to the above, it is also important to remember that children experience substantially different stages of development as they grow. For elementary aged children, questions or concerns about violence are likely to come from a place of confusion or cautious intrigue; they are not at an age where the complexities of trauma need to be explored. Rather, simple, honest information supplemented with comparisons to their own safety is best. If they appear to be harboring particular fears or anxieties, remind them of all the adults in their life who keep them safe, and how even though bad things may happen sometimes, on the whole, they are very very safe.
As children begin to grow, their questions and concerns will likely be more vocal and direct. At this age, they may require more concrete examples of why their school is safe, their home is safe, etc. Even as children begin to transition to middle-school age, many still need an adult to help them identify what is real and what is imagined.
As children transition into their teens, they will likely start to develop their own personal beliefs regarding violence. Ideally, they will have been given the proper support, honesty, and instruction as younger children to form healthy coping mechanisms as well; teens should be able to acknowledge the existence of violence, identify possible reasons for violence, and, most importantly know how to protect themselves and loved ones from violence. At this age, it is quite appropriate for adults to begin teaching their child about ways to protect themselves from potential violence; while they should understand they are overwhelmingly safe and the risk of suffering violence is low, properly equipping them on how to respond to an emergency is often an effective way to build confidence, a sense of security, and overall maturity.
4. Limit Television Coverage
Unfortunately, television news is most often inappropriate for children. Leaving on TV coverage of traumatic events is likely to result in younger children receiving information not developmentally appropriate for their age. Even for older children, television is not an ideal platform for learning about violence: in many cases, they are likely to hear arguments, inflammatory language, blaming, and all manner of unproductive, harmful, and cynical discussions. These conversations must be conducted with trusted adults in a safe space; be mindful of what your child may be hearing from the news and social media, both at home and in public places.
5. Empower Your Children
Regardless of your child's development stage, it is never too early to show your child they are empowered. Remind them that we all work together to keep our social spaces safe, and they are both welcome and encouraged to be observant of dangerous behavior, to trust their gut if they feel something is wrong, and to never hesitate to contact an adult if there is something that makes them anxious, frightened, or concerned (it may also be helpful to remind children that getting help from an adult is not "tattling"). Children must be reminded that, even though it may not feel good, it is normal to feel anger, fear, frustration, or dislike. They are not "bad," nor is it "wrong" to feel these emotions; however, how they choose to handle these emotions is important. Help your child learn how to properly confront bad feelings, and that violence is never a solution. Talk about ways to handle arguments or bad feelings; conflict resolution, mediation, and adult intervention are all examples of positive solutions.
Discussing violence with children is challenging. However, children can't be sheltered from the realities of modern society and adulthood. This is why parents, mentors, and teachers must strike a balance, and carefully weigh what is and isn't appropriate when broaching the topic with a young one. These five basic tips should provide a beneficial base to begin the conversation, and ideally give our children the tools to grow, thrive, and weather difficult situations as they grow older.