How To Talk To Kids About Violence & Terror

As parents, we are rarely at a loss for words. We delight in sharing the knowledge we have gathered over a lifetime, and find joy in teaching our children to navigate their world. Yes, there are topics we may feel uncomfortable talking about, like sex and drugs; but we find a way, and with time, can talk about them with greater ease. As the news of school shootings, terror attacks and random violence occur with greater frequency, we find ourselves in the position of having to explain the unfathomable.

Violence and terror are topics we don’t even want to think about, let alone discuss them with our children. Many parents I talk to avoid bringing up these events because they are afraid they will traumatize their children just by talking about it. However, many of us avoid the conversation because we just can’t find the words.

Why Do I Need To Tell Them?

Children are fantastic observers, but poor interpreters. They notice what is going on around them, what is being said and what is not. If we don’t talk to them about what they are seeing and hearing, they will interpret the information on their own, and their take away may be exactly the opposite of what we want it to be. When we avoid the conversation, we can actually create more fear and anxiety in our kids.

A common question from parents is, “Maybe they won’t hear about it, so why bring it up?” While we may have control of what children hear at home, we do not have that same control once they walk out the door. Parents at playgrounds talk about current events, and children end up with bits and pieces of information with no context. The radio in the car, newspapers in coffee shops, and magazines in the grocery check out lane— all filled with words and images conveying the horror of mass shootings, murders, and terror. Recess is another place where kids learn about these events, often with a great deal of misinformation. Don’t wait until they ask. They might never bring it up, but that doesn’t mean they have not heard.

What Do I Say?

Once parents gear up to have these conversations, they often provide way more details than children need. The key is to start gently and just open the door on the conversation, so they know its ok to talk about.

Start where they are by asking, “There was something sad that happened in California today; did you hear anything about it?” If they have heard about it, follow up with, “What have you heard?” Notice we haven’t even given them information at this point, we are just getting an idea of what they already know.

Now it’s your turn to share. State one sentence giving a general description of what happened. For example, “There was a violent event in California today and several people were hurt.” Next, gently correct any misinformation they may have. Your child’s age will greatly determine the level of what you share. If you are talking to a young child, the most important information to convey is, “people were hurt, I feel sad, we are safe, I love you.” If you are talking to a teen, you can be a little more specific and say, “There was a shooting today, and several people were killed.”

Once the facts are covered, it’s time to talk about feelings. It’s ok for us to share our emotions about the event as this can help children by validating their own emotions. Be sure to ask how they are feeling, and give ample reassurance about their own safety.

Our children often look to us for answers, but that doesn’t mean we always have them. Terror and violence are areas that we are all struggling to make sense of right now and we can share that with our kids. It can be comforting for children to know that even adults find it difficult to understand events like these.

End the conversation by letting your child know that it is ok to talk more about this. It’s up to us to convey that this is not a taboo topic, and that we are available to answer questions or continue the discussion any time.

Moving Forward

Processing terror and violence doesn’t end after one discussion. Here are some tips to help your family move through the trauma together.

Self Care Is Critical: This is one of those times when we need to secure our own oxygen mask first. If you are experiencing some big emotions about what happened, give yourself a chance to deal with those first.

Keep Routines In Place: Routines provide a sense of safety and security for children, so it is important to keep those in place when traumatic events surround us.

Normalize Emotions: Make sure your child knows that all emotions they are experiencing are ok. We can do this by allowing children to process the news in their own time, and avoid judging or minimizing their emotions as they arise.

Do Something: Sometimes it helps to have somewhere to direct our emotions, and reaching out to others can give us a sense of connection in a time of chaos. Look into community events, send cards to schools in the community where the trauma occurred, volunteer in your own community, or write letters to government. Taking action helps us move from feeling powerless to feeling empowered to create change.

Review Your Family Emergency Plans: While this does not need to happen right away, this is a great opportunity to remind children how they can stay safe. Discuss what to do if they see a gun at a friend’s, at school, or at the park. It is difficult to think about these things happening in our own community, but it’s critical that our children know how to stay safe. The most important thing you can do is review this information regularly. These should be small conversations often, as opposed to one time big lectures.

Social Emotional Learning Opportunity: Use the event as a way to discuss healthy ways of solving problems and dealing with emotions, and how we can support others in doing so as well.

Find Joy & Happiness: Sometimes it feels like we shouldn’t enjoy life when others are suffering so greatly. However, finding joy, doing things that make us feel close and connected can help restore our faith in humanity and notice the good that is happening every day.