When extreme acts of violence make headline news, children can be particularly affected. They become frightened and worry about their safety and the safety of loved ones.
In an ideal world, horrific events like war overseas and school shootings wouldn’t happen. But because we are grappling with both, knowing how to talk about these topics with your child is essential.
This article offers seven tips for honest and effective communication with children about scary topics.
1. Don’t Avoid the Subject
Pretending a problem doesn’t exist will not help your child deal with fear and anxiety. Bringing up the topic of school shootings or war directly with your child versus waiting for them to broach the subject will depend on your child’s personality.
If you start the conversation, make sure you offer your child plenty of room to speak. If they’re hesitant, ask open-ended questions to encourage dialogue.
If your child starts the conversation, stop what you’re doing and focus your attention on your child. Being mentally present is vital to help your child feel heard.
Don’t try to change the subject if the conversation becomes too difficult.
2. Listen Carefully
Find out what your child knows about the topic. Listen carefully and employ active listening techniques to understand what they’re telling you. Then, carefully fill in any gaps or misunderstandings.
Take as much time as you need to make sure your child has all the age-appropriate information he or she needs to understand the issue. If you don’t discuss challenging topics with your kids, someone else will – and that “someone” could be the Internet, other kids at school, or the news media.
3. Be Honest
Keep the conversation age-appropriate, but don’t lie to protect your child’s feelings. There’s a difference between telling your child a white lie for convenience (known as “instrumental lying” in the world of psychology) and lying to protect your child from reality as a whole.
It’s better to offer your child age-appropriate facts that you can discuss together. Meet your child where they are. The information you provide should be clear and truthful but not overwhelming. And remember – it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers. Not knowing something offers a learning opportunity for you and your child.
4. Talk About Events – But Avoid Excessive Media Exposure
Explain to children that we read, watch, and listen to the news to learn facts about current events. But once we have the basic facts, there’s no need to continue consuming the news. Younger children may be content with this explanation. Older children may benefit from further discussion about how news outlets earn money through advertising. Explain that media companies have financial incentives to keep viewers watching. But we as consumers have a choice to continue watching or not.
5. Validate Their Feelings
Some parents encourage children to dismiss their feelings to avoid experiencing negative emotions. Using a phrase like “Don’t be scared” is well-intentioned. But it encourages children to ignore their feelings rather than address them directly.
Instead, ask kids how they’re feeling inside. Help them find the right words to describe what they’re feeling. Listen. Don’t attempt to change their emotions. Accept their emotional state as a jumping-off point for further conversations.
6. Use Facts to Combat Fear
Explain that feeling scared is okay, but our emotions don’t always reflect reality. Remind children of the many steps taken to keep them safe, in school for example. We lock doors and windows, perform drills, have safety officers on school grounds, and talk about what to do in case of emergency.
For more help, the American School Counselor Association has a list of resources for parents to communicate about school shootings specifically with their children.
7. Know When to Seek Help from a Professional
It’s normal to be concerned about violence. But when fear, anxiety and ruminating thoughts about potential school violence or war interferes with a child’s daily life, it may be time to get help. Depending on the child’s age and/or ability to verbalize their pain, Play Therapy or Art Therapy may be appropriate. A professional counselor or therapist can help your child identify and label their emotions and identify any possible anxiety disorders and treatment options.
CONTACT CREATIVE COUNSELING CENTER
Our goal is to empower anxious children to overcome their fears with proven therapies. We want to help your child build resiliency and arm them with healthy coping strategies. Is your child struggling with anxiety about school shootings or violence? We offer a free phone consultation so you can get to know us a bit. To request a free phone consultation, simply complete the brief from below. A member of our team will contact you and, after a conversation about what your child is experiencing, we can help determine whether our practice and which therapist would be a good fit for your child. If our practice is not a good fit, for whatever reason, we’re happy to offer recommendations to providers in the Denver metro area. We look forward to hearing from you!