“12 Killed, 50 Wounded at movie theater… School shooting, several wounded… An attack on our capitol… What do I tell my 11-year-old about all these tragedies we hear about?”
Far too often, these are the headlines that confront you. It makes your heart drop and can fill you with such sorrow about the victims and their families. It often feels that senseless acts of violence are everywhere – in the media, in our communities, in our schools and, yes, in our homes. Over time, too much exposure can desensitize kids. Initially, though, most children feel frightened, unsafe and insecure.
Disturbing events can be difficult for parents to explain; however, avoiding a conversation with your child is a missed opportunity to help your child learn to communicate and cope. Research shows that children, especially tween-to-teens want parents and caring adults to talk about tough issues. Those who have early conversations are more likely to continue turning to their parents as they become older. Here are five tips to begin the courageous conversation about violence (or any tough topic).
Provide a Safe Space: Adolescents need safe spaces to share their feelings, and it’s up to you to provide it. Talking about his feelings with you can help ease the worry and fear he may feel, especially if he thinks he has to face his feelings – anger, sadness and helplessness – alone. When your child asks a question, provide straightforward answers. This helps to distinguish between fact and rumors. If you don’t have an answer or the correct information, admit it. Then, together with your child, find the answer. Hiding information or offering “white lies” causes tween-to-teens to be mistrustful rather than comforted. Also, avoid ignoring, discounting or judging your child’s questions or feelings. Doing so allows her to make up her own explanation which is often more terrifying than any honest response you could offer.
Reduce Exposure to Media: While watching the news with your child can open a discussion about current events, too much exposure can feed your tween-to-teen’s fear of not feeling safe. For adolescents, limit media exposure to times you can watch and discuss together. Then, turn off the television and computer to do something else – play a board game, go for a walk, have a picnic – something that doesn’t expose your child to more accounts of the tragedy.
Monitor Your Behavior: As a parent, these acts of violence leave you with a horrible, sickening feeling in your stomach. At the same time, your child is watching and listening to your reactions. It is okay to be upset; and it’s okay to show your child that you are upset. Don’t let those feelings consume you because your reaction influences your child’s reaction. Instead, acknowledge how you are feeling and then discuss ways to manage concerns. This opens the lines of communication and helps reestablish a sense of safety for your child.
Get Support: If you or your child are depressed or unable to participate in activities, please seek out support from your clergy or a counselor.
Hold Your Child Tight: Tragedies – especially senseless acts of violence – are terrifying for parents and child alike. Holding your child provides reassurance that you love him and are doing what you can to make his personal world safe.