Today is the 3rd anniversary of Sandy Hook. I remember when I first heard about the children of Sandy Hook being killed. My heart broke, and the tears rolled and all I wanted to do was watch the TV and read the blogs to better understand what was going on. It was like the car accident where I couldn’t turn my head away. My kids were 11 and 8 at the time, and I sure didn’t want them to see it. I tried to behave normally, but of course they could tell something was wrong. That night, I sat down with them at dinner and their dad and I gave them a child-appropriate explanation of what was going on.
A child-appropriate explanation of Sandy Hook…how I can even say that is mind-boggling. Unfortunately, gun violence and terrorism has become a common factor in the American way and while I don’t want to talk about how to talk with children about violence and terrorism, I feel I have to. Our children are having lock-down drills at school, are hearing stories of violence from other children, and many of our children are experiencing gun violence in their neighborhoods and personal lives. So while I wish I wasn’t writing this, I’m writing to talk about how to talk with children about violence and terrorism, with the hope that this blog will never need to be read.
FOR YOUNG CHILDREN
- Be age appropriate. Ideally, young children will not be exposed and will not need a conversation about this topic. Sometimes children catch a glimpse of a story on the news or overhear adults talking about violence and terrorism. If you know you children have been exposed to the information or find that children do have questions, it is important to talk with them in a way that answers their questions without providing too many details.
- Be Affectionate. Violence can make each of us upset, and for children, we can help them feel better by offering lots of kind, warm interactions. Snuggling, hugging, holding hands, and kind words all help the child feel loved and safe.
- Let children know that you and your community are doing everything possible to help them be safe. Reassure them that most people are good, and that it is OK to just play and not worry.
- Avoid Media. If at all possible, keep the news viewing away from children. Sometimes commercials or adds will show violence and if so, use the steps above to help explain the situation.
- Encourage Communication. Let them know you are always here is they have questions. Answer their questions as honestly as possible but with a tone of encouragement and reassurance.
Here are a few examples of what you can say.
“I saw that you watched some of the news with Grandpa. Do you have questions about what you saw?”
“Sometimes people do bad things, but we are doing everything we can to keep you safe.”
“Hey, I have an idea…let’s turn off the tv off and play a game or you can go outside.”
“That was really scare what we heard today. I want you to know that I love you and we are working really hard to be sure that doesn’t happen to any of us.”
For older kids, it is harder to shelter them. They know what is going on. Right after the Paris bombings, both of my girls came home with stories about how children in their schools had been targeted as terrorists. My 14 year old said, “I heard this one kid tell another that the Muslim kid was probably a terrorist”. My 11 year old said that the teacher yelled at the whole class “you do not call any of my students a terrorist. Do you understand?”
They were both upset, and clearly wanted to talk. And we did, and we still do. One of our very best friends is a Muslim. This hits us hard, but all children are affected by violence and terrorism to some degree. Older children and teens are more likely to be exposed to violence and terrorism or conversations about them and as such, parents need to know how to respond.
FOR OLDER CHILDREN
- Be Available. One of the best predictors of positive outcomes in youth is the quality of their relationship with parents and family. Open, on-going communication will help the youth process the information, and will help build positive relationships.
- Validate Feelings. How often do we say “don’t worry about that…”. While we naturally want our children to not fear terrorism or violence, the truth is that violence is a part of their reality and validating their feelings is a good way to help them feel supported.
- Answer Questions. With the Internet at the tip of their fingers, older children and teens will find answers on their own. However, if they can get information from you, chances are the information will be more credible and accompanied by an open communication. Let your child know you are always there if they have questions or want to talk.
- Be Affectionate. We might not think of teens needing affection, but the truth is, they do. Despite what they tell us, youth need encouragement, love, hugs, snuggle, and pats on the back as much as younger children. Especially in times of tragedy or when dealing with highly emotional events. Be sure to let teens know they are loved, valued, and important to you.
- Plan for Emergencies. While planning is important for all ages, older children and teens will feel a sense of relief if there is a plan in place for what to do in case of an emergency, including violence and terrorism. Knowing where to go, who to call, and what to do in times of trouble can help youth feel reassured.
- Focus on the positive. It can be easy to focus on what is wrong in the world, so it is critical that parents take time to focus on what is right. Even in times of trouble, there are positives, so taking time to focus on what is going well can alleviate stress. Reassuring youth that the chances of them being targets is low and letting them know you and your community are doing all you can to keep them safe can help reduce stress.
Here is what you could say:
“It is scary to think something like this could happen to us or your friends”
“I understand why you are upset. This is a stressful topic”
“What do you think you could do or say next time? Want to practice”
“Let’s make a plan for what we would do if there was an emergency. You know that probably won’t happen, but we can still have a plan.”
Bottom line, we all wish we didn’t even have to think about this. However, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the kids at Sandy Hook, and the many other children that have died in gun violence or terrorism. With young children, it is about monitoring exposure and offering reassurance. With older children, it is about open communication and validation of feelings. With all children, it is about working to help them feel loved, safe, and listened to.
Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you want more information, feel free to check out the following resources:
- North Dakota Extension fact sheet with information about talking with children about terrorism: https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/famsci/fs635.pdf
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has a whole page dedicated to resources on terrorism/mass violence: http://www.nctsn.org/trauma-types/terrorism