Talking to Kids About the News
By Tracey Dowdy
No matter how diligently you monitor what’s on your screen, it’s inevitable events such as the recent shootings involving police are going to impact your children and make them aware the world can sometimes be a scary place.
Our primary goal from the day our children are born is to keep them safe. Actually, we start from the time we find out we’re pregnant. We cut out coffee, alcohol, deli meat and sushi. We monitor our blood sugar and their prenatal weight.
We teach our children to find a policeman if something bad is happening, but – stepping away from the controversy over guilt and innocence – how do you approach the subject if the policeman is the shooter?
That’s a difficult question and one we as parents need to be careful how we answer. How do we help our kids feel safe and answer their questions when we ourselves often feel helpless and frustrated as well? It’s a complex issue and clearly there are no easy answers, no formulas or 12 step programs to walk them through.
Keep in mind our children will model their reactions on ours, so be aware that your children are always watching. Bad things do happen to good people. Life is often unfair. Your child may be more aware of these facts of life than you realize. Alongside fire drills, many schools have implemented lockdown drills teaching children and adults how to hide and protect themselves from armed or violent intruders.
These tips are a general outline based on conversations and information from trained psychotherapists and psychologists. It’s not a comprehensive list by any means but they are a good place to start.
Listen. Maybe your child will ask a direct question about what they’ve heard. Maybe they’ll tiptoe around the subject and wait for you to bring it up. Listen. Listen when they talk to you, when they talk to their siblings, when they talk to their friends. Some kids will even work through their fear with play. Listen.
Be willing to have a difficult conversation. Always keeping in mind the age and maturity level of your child, using appropriate language, find out what they know. Ask open ended questions and follow their lead. You don’t have to have all the answers. When you don’t know, just say it. “I don’t know. But, you know what, let’s work together to be part of the solution.” Be ready to have the conversation more than once. Often your child will process your discussion and have additional questions or ask the same questions over again. Let them know you’re always available if they have more questions.
Make sure they have their facts straight. I was living on Long Island when 9/11 occurred and it had a direct impact on many of the students in the school where I worked. Though I didn’t allow my own daughters to see the images, the same couldn’t be said for some of their friends. Playgrounds and school cafeterias aren’t the best places to get your news so be sure to clarify if your child has been misinformed.
Keep it simple. Obviously the conversation will be very different with your six-year old from the one you have with your sixteen-year old. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed. D. suggests, “A good analogy is how you might talk about sex. You obviously wouldn’t explain everything to a 5-year-old. Talking about violence and safety is similar.”
Watch for changes in behavior. Sometimes children are uncomfortable articulating their fear so watch for behavioral changes like difficulty sleeping, irritability, sadness, separation anxiety, and even changes in eating habits.
Validate their emotions. Fear is a natural, healthy response. Fear keeps them from running into traffic or touching a hot stove. A simple statement like, “I can understand why you’re afraid. Let’s talk about what we can do to keep you safe.”, validates their fear but gives hope that it’s not completely out of their control.
Be patient. It’s nearly impossible for us to manage our emotions surrounding these events and it’s even more difficult for children. Childhood brings its own set of challenges and your kids are learning to navigate their feelings as they mature.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, teach your children to be part of the solution. Anger and violence generally stem from one of three things – fear, hurt, or a sense of injustice. It’s easy to see all three in the recent shootings so it’s imperative that we teach our children to look for ways to make a difference. In fact, better than teaching them, model the behavior. Help your children understand the impact problems like bullying, poverty and racism have on society and channel that anger into positive change.
“We look at a lot of civil rights activists from the past and the present and how it is always young people who propel these issues forward. Hopefully, they can be inspired by others, and be able to think about, ‘What can my role be? How can I be part of the solution?” – Laura Fuchs, U.S. history and government teacher at Washington D.C.’s H.D. Woodson High School.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.