Talking To Children About Violence
By Ron Huxley
Violence in society is a major issue for families today. It's everywhere we look, it seems, and as a parent it disturbs me deeply. Part of the job of parenting is to protect our children from the ills, if not the evils of the world, but what do you do when it comes looking for you. Recent sniper attacks, school suicide-killings and the outbreak of fighting around the world, makes talking to our children about violence a necessary responsibility.
It would be easy to wait until our children bring up the issue and not take a lead role in discussing violence with them. Unfortunately, too many children take in the information, attempt to process it with their limited experience and understanding, and never say a word to an adult. Just because they don't initiate, doesn't mean that parents shouldn't. For these children, talking about the violence may relieve feelings of anxiety and insecurity they were bottling up inside. Children get their sense of safety from the attitudes and behaviors of adults, primarily parents. How we act and talk will have a direct impact of the emotional well being of children.
The first step to talking to children about violence is to acknowledge their thoughts and feelings about the violence. The best way is the simplest: Ask them what they think or feel. This will give parents a barometer about where the child is at and what concerns need to be addressed. Demonstrate that you are willing to hear it and give your child full attention without judgement. Too many parents are quick to jump into a child's comments and make them seem invalid. A parent might dismiss their child's fears as unnecessary: "You shouldn't feel that way" or "You don't need to worry about that." A parent might even reply that the child is being silly, stupid, or overreacting for what they are thinking and feeling. This is a sure method to get a child to shut down emotionally and not communicate with a parent, now and in the future. Get on a child's level by sitting or kneeling down when talking to them. And get rid of any distractions (i.e., turn off the television or radio). Make the conversation about them not you.
The second step is to clarify and/or reflect back a child's comments. For example, a parent might say, "Tell me more about your fears of someone killing you" or "What do you mean you think the world is going to end." This also communicates to a child that what they have to say is important and not trivial. It makes parents more aware of the underlying issues. If a child's comments are clear then repeat back to the child what you heard them say. Don't be a parrot; just summarize it, so that you and the child are on the same ground mentally.
The third step is to share your feelings and value about the violence. This means you must be aware of what they are before you ask your child to share. How do you feel about the violence? What is your value-system about killing, death, and violence? Is it a social, moral, or relational issue for you or does it encompass all three. Once you are aware of where you stand, you can communicate this with your child. Share in a direct, simple, and honest manner. How you say something may be more important than what you say. But be sure to say it in a matter of fact way.
What you say will vary depending on your values and the age of your child. Young children have difficulty separating reality from fantasy and it may be important to describe the difference. For example, a parent of a young child might state: "I know that the cartoons you watch sometimes have characters who shoot one another but that is not real. In real life, when someone gets shot they get hurt and they might even die." Avoid in-depth explanations for younger children. They will lose attention and not be able to process long descriptions. One to two sentences are more than enough. Additionally, parents can use drawings and children's book about fighting, violence, etc. Always follow up with reassurances that you love them, will do your best to care and protect them, and that they are safe.
Older children may be able to verbalize their thoughts and feelings more distinctly but don't let that be an excuse not to talk about it. Use the same principles as with younger children but feel free to talk more deeply about the violence. Watch the news report together or read the newspaper article out loud, pausing to discussing thoughts and feelings. Ask them if they know of anyone who has been the victim of violence. The older they are the more likely they will know or have heard of someone. Talk about violence that has occurred towards them or in their daily life, such as school. Guide the older child toward your values without forcing them on them or telling them how they should believe. And look at ways to get involved in your community or through national relief efforts to help victims of violence. Being proactive will give a child a sense of power versus powerlessness.
What we say to children is important and we must say something. Sticking our heads in the sand will not improve the situation. Actually, ignoring or dismissing the topic of violence will increase a child's anxiety and fears. But even more importantly, how we talk about violence will have profound impact on our child's sense of self, their understanding of right from wrong, and their relationship with the parent.