Perspectives on Grieving
Talking to Your Children about Violence
When a mass tragedy, such as a school shooting or bombing occurs, children will often feel scared. Some have many questions for adults. Others say very little, leaving adults wondering what they know or understand. Caring adults may feel a huge sense of responsibility to protect their children as well as insecurity about what to say to them. Here are some basic ideas to keep in mind when talking to children about violence:
- Tell the truth. Keep information simple. Don’t expand on details unless they ask specifically for them, but don’t lie. In the current technological climate, children find out information very quickly. As caring adults in their lives, we should be the ones they can trust to get information to them accurately. If children aren’t told the truth, they will look elsewhere for information. They will not feel safe to discuss their feelings with you.
- Limit exposure to media. Children do not always understand that repeated viewings of the same event are just that—the same event. Some children may think that the violent acts are continuing or are much more widespread than they actually are. For example, on 9/11, many children thought that thousands of buildings were being attacked because they saw repeated images of the same thing. Older children who have more access to the internet should be monitored closely and should be told that not all information they find will be accurate. Make sure they know they can come to you to ask questions about what they see.
- Help children feel safe. Talk about safety measures that are in place in your home, in their school, and in the surrounding area. If you don’t know about some of these precautions, educate yourself. Tell your children that they are asking good questions, and you will get back to them when you know the answers. And then don’t forget to do that!
- Explore ways to cope with intense feelings. Talk about behavior that is safe to engage in when feeling angry, scared, or confused such as crying, journaling, and exercising. Explain to your children that bad behavior is not acceptable just because they have strong feelings. Interact with them in ways that let them express their feelings by using dolls, clay, drawing, music or sports.
- Empower children to make a positive difference. It is so easy to focus on the negative aspects of the event, and forget about all of the positive reactions and things that come from tragedy. Find ways to give to the community or raise awareness about how to get help. This helps children know that they are not powerless even in the face of large-scale events. Remind them that there are many more helpers in the community than people that want to cause harm. Help them identify who those helpers are in their own lives.
- Take care of yourself. As difficult as an event like this can be for a child, it is equally scary and confusing for adults. Talk to supportive people in your own life. Get enough sleep. Seek professional help if you need it. Often, exposure to violence in the media or in your community stirs up previous traumas in your life. Sometimes adults feel like their own previous grief/trauma is as fresh as when it first happened. We can’t take care of our children if we are not healthy ourselves. Be the presence that your children need by staying healthy.
Some additional websites that provide guidelines for talking to children include:
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, www.nctsnet.org
- Coalition to Support Grieving Children, www.grievingstudents.scholastic.com
- The National Association of School Psychologists, www.nasponline.org
- The Dougy Center, www.dougy.org
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – Trauma and Violence