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Tips for talking to children about violence

Friday, December 21, 2012

High profile acts of violence are horrifying to all of us, regardless of our age. But when children are the targets, especially when they take place in schools, these acts are very likely to confuse and frighten our children. Even if they are a long distance from the tragedy, children may feel they are in danger or worry that their friends or loved-ones are in danger. You can help your children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and by talking with them about their fears.

Be reassuring.
Children take their emotional cues from adults in their lives. They will pick up on your reactions. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Emphasize that schools are very safe, that there are safety measures in place. Reassure them that you, their teachers and other adults will take care of them.

Be a good listener/observer and make time to talk. Be patient. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. If they are not focused on the tragedy, do not dwell on it. However, be available to answer their questions to the best of your ability. Young children may not be able to express themselves verbally. Changes in their in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around.
 
Some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of mental health professional if you are concerned.

Use age appropriate explanations:
• Early and pre-elementary school age children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.

• Upper elementary and early middle school age children may be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.

• Upper middle school and high school age teens may have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They may share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that they have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.

Monitor the news and conversations of others. Images of a disaster or crisis event can become overwhelming, especially if watched repetitively. Young children in particular may not be able to distinguish between images on television and their personal reality. If children to see the news, discuss what they see and help them put it in perspective. Be mindful of the content of conversations you and others have in front of children, even teenagers. Limit their exposure to vengeful, hateful, and angry comments that might be misunderstood.

Maintain a normal routine. Allowing children to deal with their reactions is important but so is providing a sense of normalcy. Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Routine family activities, classes, after-school activities, and friends can help children feel more secure and better able to function. Doing things together reinforces children's sense of stability and connectedness.

Review safety procedures. Discussing what to do in threatening situations -- such as violence, fire, tornadoes and hurricanes, and getting lost -- should be a regular occurrence between you and your children. This should include procedures and safeguards to follow. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they can go if they feel threatened or at risk.

Be aware of your own needs. Don't ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Ask for help if you feel you or your children need it. Talking to friends, family members, religious leaders, and mental health counselors can help. It is important to let your children know that you are sad. You will be better able to support your children if you can express your own emotions in a productive manner.

There are a number of organizations that provide tips and advice about talking to children, as well as caring for yourselves in the aftermath of high profile acts of violence. We’ve used two of them as resources for the information included here. They are:

The National Association of School Psychologists www.nasponline.org 
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network www.nctsn.org