As I walked into the house after an out-of-town wedding a few weeks ago, I listened to my five-year-old tell me about a “bad guy” who was shooting people “on another planet.”
CNN was on in the living room. The “other planet” was Orlando. The “bad guy” was a terrorist.
And with a heavy heart, I realized I didn’t have much time left until I would need to discuss these horrific events with my children.
Not that I had the first clue how to approach it.
Since then, I’ve done my research and come up with some important conclusions about how best to approach these topics with my kids.
1. If possible, wait until about age 8.
Although it depends on your child, parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa suggests waiting until about age 8 to discuss violence in the news, since young children struggle to process the information.
However, if the incident directly affects your family, or if your younger children will hear about it from others, its best to talk to them about it. Not talking about can be even scarier for a child.
2. For very young children, tell a one-sentence story.
Since it is difficult to young children to understand the complexities of mass shootings and racial violence, create a one-sentence story that reflects your own beliefs. Something like “A bad man hurt people with a gun” can explain what happened at the level a young child will understand. Reassure your child they are safe.
3. Limit media exposure of children 8 and under (especially visual images)
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends shielding children from the violent images on television since they can be upsetting and confusing. These images can also cause nightmares, anxiety or irrational fears. When young children see repeated images of the same event, they often think that even more violence is happening right now.
4. Find the helpers.
Thanks, Mr. Rogers. So darn true.
5. Start the discussion.
With elementary school aged kids, most experts agree that your role is to start the discussion and answer questions. Ask your kids what they already know about what happened, and how they feel about it. Listen for any questions they have, and answer them as honestly as you can.
6. Gently clear up misconceptions.
Kids may have heard exaggerations or misinformation from other children at school, or they may be confused about what actually happened. Though it is not necessary to clear up every single piece of misinformation, help them to separate fact, opinion and falsities.
7. Reassure them they are safe.
For all ages, most children’s main concern is if they are safe and if their families are safe. Though you cannot promise your child that nothing will ever happen to you or your family, you can reassure them that you are doing everything you can to protect them, and so are other trusted adults. Younger children may feel better just by knowing that the event happened far away.
8. Look for solutions with older children and teens.
Having discussions with your teenagers about how to solve problems of violence and racism can be productive and cathartic for you and your kids. It helps to turn their anxiety, anger and fear about the situation into positive energy to be used for good.
You might even consider encouraging them to write a letter to their elected representative that articulates their beliefs, or getting them involved in a local effort that helps victims of the tragedy.
Do you have any suggestions for our MiltownMoms.com community? Leave them in the comments below.