Talking to Children About Violence

Tragic events can leave children feeling insecure and unsure of their world.

Children crave security — knowing they are safe and loved.Their developing brains depend on this need being met in order to grow into healthy well-adjusted adults. Adults’ reactions to shootings, stabbings and other violent acts affect the children around them. It is important to decide how you want to discuss the events with your children. We can often, without realizing, pass on our own fears to our children.

Children are concrete thinkers.

They cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy. So, images on screen that they see can trigger fears and anxieties each time these images are viewed. If possible, limit screen exposure to ongoing news coverage of the events. Recognize that misinterpretations may occur when children see these images. They may think it is happening over and over again, or has happened in their neighborhood. They may not verbalize this fear. Anxiety and fear shows up in children’s behaviors.

Listen more than talk.

Despite common developmental stage characteristics, each child is unique. Listening to questions and answering concretely and honestly is helpful for children. For example, if your child asks questions about the shootings, instead of trying to shift the subject or provide a lot of details, respond by validating how they are feeling “yes, what happened is scary” and then follow up with a question, such as “tell me more about what you’ve heard.” This can provide you with some direction in how to respond with a truthful assurance, “you are in a safe place now,” or “mom and dad are here to listen to how you are feeling about this.” It also gives you an opportunity to correct misconceptions such as children thinking this happened close to home or will happen to them next time they go to school.

Maintain a predictable routine.

This is important in the face of this unpredictable event. It helps to address the anxiety that goes with the new uncertainty in their worldview. Remember that how adults react affects the children around them. Adults need to process their own fears and anxieties with other adults, out of range of children. Many adults are struggling as well. It is difficult to process, maybe more so for adults,the enormity of the lives that have been forever changed by one person’s actions.

Online resources that may also be helpful:

American Psychological Association Help Center

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

National Institute of Mental Health

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, there are other resources at Pine Rest. To schedule an outpatient counseling appointment, the number is 866.852.4001; for questions about inpatient admission or evaluation, the number is 616.455.9200 or 800.678.5500.


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