Almost every day there is the report of another shooting or act of violence somewhere in our country or the world at large. I am often asked by parents how to talk to their children about these events and news stories. Of course, there is no one simple answer. Just as I discuss these events differently with my 13 year old daughter and my 8 year old son, much depends on the ages of the children involved.
Elementary-school-aged children don’t yet have the depth of understanding as to how current events relate to their families, their communities, or the world around them. Thus, unlimited and unmonitored access to news media is anxiety-provoking in young children. First, parents should talk to their children and learn what they’ve heard at school or elsewhere about big events in the world. Parents should next discuss these events to help put them into a larger or more comprehensible framework. If appropriate to the maturity of the child, parents can read or watch news stories about these events with their children, nurturing understanding.
Next, I feel it’s important to be reassuring to our children that although these events are significant and that steps should be taken to reduce violence in our communities and in the world around us, these violent acts are overall rare events. The chance that any one of us or our children will experience such an event firsthand is very low. Children will naturally become concerned and anxious about their safety or that of their loved ones, and it’s important that we help them feel safe and secure.
To combat the anxiety and helplessness that can result from random acts of extreme violence, it’s appropriate to offer empowerment in the form of prevention and hope. Children find it useful to have a framework for how to approach unusual situations. For instance, if a child finds him or herself in a situation that feels unsafe, it’s important for them to know who in their lives can be identified as adults in whom to seek safety — teachers, family, police, firefighters. It’s also helpful to make sure that if your child encounters a gun at a friend’s house, that he or she immediately leaves the situation and finds an adult for guidance.
Children should be given a hopeful message that the adults in their lives are trying to make changes for the better to prevent violence — that elected officials and doctors are trying to give people better access to mental health care, that lawmakers are trying to figure out ways to keep weapons out of the hands of those who intend to do harm, and that schools practice drills to be prepared in the unlikely case that there is a dangerous situation in their own community.
For adolescents in middle and high school, these messages are overall the same. However, we are in much less control as to how they get information about current events and what the sources of that information may be. A parent can help the older child consider the reliability or bias of different news sources. Limiting media exposure can decrease the stress caused by these events. Parents can also emphasize a more active role in prevention with specific safe places or ways to communicate with family in an emergency. In addition, older children can be introduced to advocacy, for example writing to elected officials to encourage change in gun control laws or volunteering within the community to better understand the world at large.
In some children, older or younger, news and discussion of these events can be severely traumatic. If a child shows a lack of focus at school, difficulties at home or with peers, signs of emotional regression, or obsessions with the details of news events, consultation with a therapist, school counselor, or religious leader may be beneficial.
The violence we are seeing in our country is occurring at epidemic rates, and change is needed. As a parent and pediatrician, I know that supporting our children’s emotional health as well as their physical health must be a part of this change as well.
Written by: Dr. Andy Bernstein
Previously published in part at http://girlillawarfare.com/mommy-whats-a-terrorist/
Image credit: www.datto.com