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Talking to Children About Mass Violence: An age-by-age guide for parents

School violence, mass shootings and terrorist attacks.  It feels like every time we open our social media apps or listen and watch the news, individuals, families and communities are being affected by mass violence and tragedies.

These forms of violence evoke many emotions in people—anxiety, worry, fear, anger, sadness and helplessness. While it’s hard for many of us as adults to digest and grasp the gravity of these forms of mass violence, it can be especially difficult to explain what happened to your school-aged child or teen.

How best do you approach the topic? At what age is it okay to discuss, or should it be avoided altogether?

Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, said there is no one right way to address these types of tragedies with children, but it certainly depends a lot on your child. And it when it comes to your child, you’re the best expert.

“Some kids are totally unaware of what’s going on other than what’s in their little bubble; their little world. In these cases, it’s okay not to bring up something that could stir up unnecessary fear and anxiety,” Dr. Adelayo said. “While other kids may be deeply affected by what they see and hear in the news or from friends when it comes to mass violence. They may ask questions, or it may be more subtle where you start to notice changes in behavior or interest in a particular event. In this case, it’s time to open up and talk about it.”

Whether your child has personally experienced trauma, has seen it in the media or heard it among peers or between adults, it’s important for parents to be informed and ready to help. Dr. Adelayo provides the following age-related recommendations for all parents who face these types of conversations.

Age-by-Age Tips for Talking to Your Child About Mass Violence

Preschool to early elementary age: Keep it brief
  • Keep the conversation brief using words your child understands but avoid sharing graphic details.
  • Be honest and acknowledge that bad things sometimes happen but also reassure them they are safe and that many people, like you, their teachers and community, are working to keep them safe.
  • Look for the heroes. If your child wants to and you think it’ll help, have them draw a picture or write a note to thank a hero in their life who’s helping to keep people safe.
Upper elementary to middle school age: Listen, counsel and reassure
  • Your child may have lots of questions but may not know how to effectively voice them. This is a great opportunity to sit down and ask them open-ended questions. Ask them what they know and how they are feeling about it. Earnestly listen to them and answer their questions in a way that makes them feel safe. If you don’t have the answers, that’s okay too. It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers.
  • If there’s talk going on in school between your child’s friends, oftentimes these conversations may create unrealistic fears and anxiety about safety. Help separate reality versus fantasy. Discuss what is being done at their school and community to ensure their safety.
  • If it helps your child, focus on the legacies of those whose lives were lost and how people and communities continue to persevere afterward—showing the resiliency of others and the humanity in people.
Teens and young adults: Be present
  • Ask your teenager what they’ve heard, how they’re feeling about the event and what questions they may have about it. Some teens may have very strong and varying feelings about what happened. Allow them to voice them and engage them in an open dialogue with empathy and respect.
  • Encourage them toward active things they can control to ensure their safety and the safety of others. Help them put their passion and energy on the subject into something beyond themselves, such as volunteering at a shelter or starting a fundraiser.

What else can I do to help my child?

  • Limit your child’s exposure to media images and news on the subject.
  • Offer continued love and support.
  • Continue to talk about the helpers—those who are stepping up to help in times of tragedy.
  • Keep up your daily routine. Normalcy will help your child feel more secure.
  • If your child doesn’t have much to say yet, be patient. They may need some time to process on their own.
  • Watch for changes in behavior, emotions and schoolwork. If your child is having trouble coping, talk with your child’s doctor or a licensed behavioral health specialist who has expertise in trauma.

To find a licensed behavioral health professional in your area, visit bannerhealth.com. If your child is struggling or is exhibiting signs of suicide or self-harm contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Additional Resources:

Behavioral Health Parenting

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