Violence is hard enough for adults to understand, but explaining it to children is not for the faint of heart. Sadly, most children these days are acutely aware of the implications of such events. Seeing random acts of violence on the news, or talking about it at school, can be especially disturbing for kids. It can shatter their innocence and their trust in the world around them. Parents naturally need guidance to discuss this sensitive subject with their children.
Much as we’d like to just flip off the television and pretend to our children that nothing has happened (and I understand the impulse, believe me), that would actually do our kids a great injustice. Because, even though we hate to think of it, they’ve more than likely heard something about it already. And what they imagine may be even worse than the facts. So it is essential that we speak honestly and reassuringly to our children, in language they can comprehend and digest.
The experience of September 11th and other tragedieshave taught us that children benefit greatly by having age-appropriate information, and by learning important coping skills for the future. It is my hope that this information will serve as a helpful tool for discussing these kinds of tragedies with your children, and that it will help your children cope in the weeks, months and years to come.
First, put violence into context for your child. Begin by asking your child what he has heard about the event. Let his questions guide your discussion. If you do not have the answer, be honest and tell your child that you will try to find the answer. Having information will take away some of the confusion and help her feel better. This is a good time to remind her that it is never okay for a person to hurt themselves or others to feel better.
Here are some suggested responses to possible questions or comments from your child.
“America has always been a country that celebrates differences. The Statue of Liberty reminds us that every kind of person lives in America. We look different, act differently and like different things. Just think how boring the world would be if we were all the same! But sometimes differences can make people feel divided—they think that everyone should be just like them. These differences can cause misunderstandings, disagreements, and anger. Sometimes people even get so angry they do terrible things.”
“There are some terrible people in the world—but there are many more good people! Just think of all the good people you know. And your family loves you and will do everything to keep you safe!”
“That’s totally understandable. And it’s really good that you’re sharing those feelings, because when people keep their feelings locked up inside, it can cause aches and pains! I know the news can sound really scary, so we’re going to take a break from the TV and radio for a while. Now let’s find a way to help you express those feelings: You can draw a picture of how you feel, listen to music, write a poem—or do something fun, like go outside to play and get some exercise! And you know, it’s always okay to cry, too, if you feel really bad. I’m here, and you can come to me. So why don’t we start with a hug!”
NOTE: It’s helpful to listen to your child’s questions and concerns with empathy, and without judgment. Validate his feelings and show him your love and emotional support, even if you disagree. Always try to avoid telling him how he “should” feel. Learning how to understand and manage his emotions will be something he will take with him for the rest of his life.
“It’s very unlikely that something terrible will happen here. But if it did, our government, our police and fire departments are very well-trained and well-prepared to protect you. Your teachers and principal will be doing everything to protect you, too. And I will make sure you are safe. So now we’re going to continue doing all the things we usually do—nothing is going to change!”
“Let’s create an action plan. We’ll probably never need it, but it’s always good to be prepared for anything. We can create an emergency kit, with water and food that will keep, a radio and extra batteries, and anything you’d like to have with you—like crayons and paper, a deck of cards, a good book. Then, let’s sit down and make a list of all the fun things we’re going to do—like planning where to go on summer vacation, and what movies we want to see. Because those things are definitely going to happen!”
“Grownups are in charge of keeping all of us safe, but you do have a very important job: You need to take care of your health, because there’s only one you!I’m going to help you make sure to get plenty of rest, exercise your body and brain, wear your seat belt in the car, wear your helmet when you’re riding your bike, and see the doctor and dentist when you’re supposed to! But it’s also important to have fun to keep your mood healthy. Always talk to someone who cares about you if there’s anything that’s making you feel bad. And make sure to do at least one thing every day that makes you happy!”
“What a wonderful question! There are lots of things you can do: You can write a letter or draw a picture for a child who’s been affected by a terrible event and let them know they have a friend. We can send a care package to someone in our military who is overseas trying to protect us. You can create or join in a fundraiser for a relief organization. You can even donate toys or clothes to children here in our city who need help. It’s important to share kindness wherever you are and wherever you go. That’s what’s going to change the world.”
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.