You're Not Powerless: How to Talk to Kids About Violence After a Tragedy

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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This morning my two sons bounced out of bed, excited that the day that they'd be going to see
The Dark Knight Rises was finally here. I was watching news coverage of the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, so all that eagerness was quickly replaced with horror and sadness for the victims. They also began to wonder, will this happen at the movies if we still go tonight?

I told them that what happened in Colorado was just an isolated incident, but I felt somewhat inadequate in the conversation. Indeed, along with the loss of life, what makes any kind of violence—this movie theater tragedy, the Columbine shootings, the Virginia Tech shootings, or even the murder of Trayvon Martin—so insidious is that it significantly changes the way we think about other people and our safety and in the world. Children especially need to feel that security, but so many parents and teachers don't know how to have honest conversations with them without robbing them of their innocence.

One great resource on having conversations with children about violence comes from the National PTA and the Anti-Defamation League. They include great tips like preparing for the conversation by exploring your own feelings about what happened, being alert to signs that children are fearful or upset, listening to and treating "all children's questions with respect and seriousness." Never "shush, ignore, or dismiss children," they say.

They also recommend that we should be honest without being unnecessarily explicit or frightening. Obviously, the amount of detail you share will vary depending on the age of the kids involved, but just as you wouldn't take a kindergartener to see the Batman flick, you wouldn't want to explain in graphic detail how people involved in the tragedy died.  We should also take the time to "reassure children in age-appropriate ways that they are safe," and that "police, rescue workers, and government and private agencies" are working to keep us safe.  

However, the tip that I found most helpful is that we should avoid conveying hopelessness and powerlessness in the face of hate:

"Have regular discussions about ways people can address hate. Brainstorm ways to address these concerns at home, in school and in the community. Examples include speaking out against name-calling, making friends with people who are different from you, learning about many cultural groups and exploring ways to increase inter-group understanding. Discuss specific steps to make these things happen."

That's advice that all of us, no matter what age we are, can surely heed as we try to figure out how to move forward. 

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Caitlinator