By: Anisa S. Cole, LCSW
Coordinator of Clinical Day Programs at CCGC
I remember over 10 years ago being shown a video where someone interviewed children ages 4 to around 12 about what they thought September 11, 2001 was and how it happened. Responses from the children were all age appropriate but varied greatly, ranging from “5 planes hit all these buildings over and over” to “it happened because people were mean to each other”. While some were accurate in what they said, others had no concrete idea of what happened and were trying to figure it out and grasped at ways to make sense of it on their own.
Fast forward to 2018 where acts of violence are regular for our kids, and occurs in places that should be safe for them such as churches, parades… and somewhere they go every day, a place where parents know that for up to 8 hours their children are supposed to be safe and learning; their own school. So what do we say to our children now?
Some of us may remember when Sesame Street aired video focused on dealing with traumatic events: Elmo describes feelings of fear and emotional stress. But how does Sesame Street or any children’s show do an episode on school shootings?
I asked a friend how she discussed the recent Parkland Shooting to her 5 year old son, and she said even though she tried to shield him from it, he walked in and saw it on the news while she was watching the weather. We’ve all heard about situations like this, where these acts of violence are on magazine covers at grocery stores and on televisions in the pediatrician’s office… leading to conversations that we might not be ready to have with our children. At a time when 2 year-olds can turn on cell phones, 5 year-olds have tablets, and teenagers are snapchatting on cellphones in class, “shielding” them is no longer a realistic option. What used to be considered an “adult situation” has now been brought into their world and often, we can’t stop it.
In this digital age, we know if we don’t answer their questions someone will, and as parents and caregivers of course you want your children to hear about it from you. We know that this can be tough to deal with, and it can be hard to know what to say on the spot. Take a look below and check out our 8 tips for talking to your children about acts of violence like the Parkland Shooting.
Eight Key Suggestions in talking to your children about acts of violence:
1.If the situation is too triggering and emotional for you, wait until you’re calm enough to talk about it. If you are too upset to talk, no one is going to feel better after your conversation.
2. Monitor what is on television and media in your home (news, webpages, and social media, etc.) as much as possible.
4. Allow them time to process your discussion and encourage them to ask questions later if any come to mind.
5. If your child expresses sadness, anger, or whatever emotion, it is OK to share these feelings with them. Validate their feelings by saying things like “you are safe” and “you’re right, it is sad”.
6. Try to avoid direct statements that make judgement about others. There’s always a time and place to share opinions with your children, but in the wake of a traumatic event offering a concrete judgment may upset or confuse a child who is feeling strong emotions. For example, if you say “He had a gun because he is a bad man” to an 11-year-old who hunts safely with his grandfather on the weekends he may feel conflicted about the entire conversation. Instead, focus on the idea that someone used a weapon unsafely.
7. If the children are older it’s okay to be more specific, and you can emphasize to your teenager the importance of actively communicating with adults if they hear or see things in their own community that seem unsafe. With so many acts of violence occurring, it has never been more urgent to empower your children, especially older children, to speak up if something is not right.
8. If possible, open a line of communication with your child’s school to discuss measures being put into place such as school lock down drills and emergency protocols. Knowing about these things and discussing them may lessen your child’s anxiety regarding their own safety and may help encourage them to take all acts of violence seriously.
Always remember, little ears hear big things!
So when we, as adults, are discussing real world news and expressing our feelings pay attention to where children are. A lot of times we think they are not listening, but they are! Of course they are! We all remember listening at the door, and now they are just as likely to do the same.
We know this topic is tough, and as always if your child’s feelings of anxiousness become unmanageable, feel free to reach out to providers like the Community Child Guidance Clinic to get additional support. There are many resources that can help, and together we can all be a stronger community.
Links and Resources:
Sesame Street’s episode on traumatic experiences: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EyC4lG0IliU
How mental Health Experts talk to their kids about school shootings: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/how-mental-health-experts-talk-their-kids-about-school-shootings-ncna845586