Talking to children about violent events

How to talk to young children about violence.

Boy laying down

The world can be confusing and scary, even for adults. In times of public violence and loss, everyone is impacted, especially young children. Incidences of violence and hate have a lasting impact on individuals and on our country as a whole. Here are some things you can keep in mind as you talk about violent events with young children.

Ask them what they know. Ask your child to tell you what they think they know or understand about the situation. Children often have misconceptions or a limited understanding of a complex issue, so start by asking them what they know. You can clear up any misconceptions and get a better understanding of what might be bothering your child about the situation.

Establish a dialogue. Talk openly with your child about what happened. Tell your child the facts about what happened, why it happened and what the result was. Take the lead from your child on how much information they are ready to hear, so keep your responses brief and look for cues that your child either needs to be done talking or wants more information.

Tell the truth. Give your child the facts and keep the information you share age-appropriate. Avoiding talking about traumatic events or telling white lies can actually make children more afraid if they think you are hiding something from them. It’s not easy to talk to children about issues like racism, hate or violence, but it is so important we do.

Educate yourself. If you are not confident that you truly understand the issues surrounding an act of violence, look to trustworthy resources to educate yourself. It’s OK to tell your child you don’t know or understand all the details surrounding an issue. You can always respond to a question with, “I’m not sure, but I will look into it and then we can talk about it some more.”

Talk about your feelings. It’s OK to let children know you are sad, scared or angry about violence in our world. Tell them how those violent acts make you feel; this act gives power to those emotions that your young child is experiencing as well. They will learn to trust their own emotions and emotional reactions to violence and other trauma when you share yours openly with them.

Accept their emotions. It’s tempting to want to minimize a child’s emotional response because we don’t want them to be anxious, sad or scared. It’s important we allow children to express themselves openly and we accept whatever they are feeling. Maybe they are angry or confused instead of just sad. All feelings are OK, even if they differ from yours. Children should have an outlet for processing their emotions. Some may want to just talk while others may process by writing, drawing or thinking on their own.

Love and reassure them. Children need parents and other families to be a steady foundation—they don’t need you to be perfect or happy all the time. Your calm and reassuring presence can help them work through tough situations and feelings and find calm and comfort. Show them affection, spend quality time together doing things you both enjoy and tell them how much you love them.

Be available. Unfortunately, violence is not a one-time event, and it’s not something anyone can just “get over.” Be available to continue to support, comfort and talk to your child about their feelings. Check in with them regularly to see how they are doing and if they need any additional support from you.

Limit exposure. The 24-hour news cycle means that stories about violent acts get replayed over and over again on many different media outlets from news television broadcasts and newspapers to social media, YouTube and in our daily conversations. Limit your young child’s exposure to the constant talk about violent events, as this may increase their anxiety or confusion of the issue. Instead, make sure you take the time to connect with them to talk about and process what has happened.

Provide resources and support. Sometimes the impact of a violent event can be severe. If your child continues to struggle with processing a violent event, or if they are having a hard time coping and you can’t seem to comfort them, you may need to reach out to others to find resources and support for your young child. Ask your child’s doctor or school social worker for help finding supports for your child.

Children are constantly learning and trying to make sense of the world, but sometimes the world doesn’t make sense. You can help children by being present with them, engaging in conversation and dialogue and giving them unconditional love and support.

Check out these resources from The American Academy of Pediatrics, The National Association of School Psychologists, The National Institute of Mental Health and Zero to Three for additional information.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families are experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2017 Impact Report. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2017, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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