Talking to Children and Teens About Violence

Last week we witnessed one of the deadliest mass shootings unfold right in our backyard and once again lost precious human lives due to unnoticed mental illness. As a middle school guidance counselor and clinician, this incident left me feeling heartbroken and overwhelmed with emotion. The past week has consisted of conversations with students who lost family members in the shooting, are scared for their safety in school, or just need a safe place to be validated and comforted.Finding the right way to have age appropriate discussions with children can be tough; therefore, I have listed some tips below:

1. Reinforce That Your Child is Safe

This news can be very frightening no matter the age of your child. Your child needs validation and reassurance that they are safe in their school and at home. Allow your child to express feelings and be sure to normalize them. It may look something like, “Thank you for sharing that with me. It’s okay to be scared about what happened. It’s scary for mom too, and our schools and community work hard everyday to protect us and keep us safe”. It’s important to provide a safe place at home to discuss their fears. Once fears are brought into the light they hold less power.

2. Talk About It

This is probably the most important tip I can provide. As parents we want to protect our loved ones from the harsh reality of the world we live in today. We may turn off the news if our child walks into the room because it may be easier to dismiss the conversation than figure out how to address the tragedy appropriately. Although this likely will be a tough discussion with your child, it’s important you talk in your family about the tragedy that has unfolded. By dismissing the conversation, your child is receiving the message that this is something to be feared. This creates a mixed message or dialectical dilemma in the family system.

Allow your child’s questions guide the information you provide them. Notice signs that your child may want to talk such as hanging around the living room/kitchen. Younger children may express feelings artistically. You may sit down and ask them about the meaning of their artwork to prompt a discussion. Provide age appropriate responses. For instance, younger elementary students need less details than a high school student.

3. Notice Your Child’s Emotional State

During this time it’s important to be on the look out for changes in behavior patterns such as isolation, extreme anger or sadness, or anything out of the norm for your child. Look for changes in sleep or eating patterns which may indicate anxiety or emotional disturbance. If you do notice differences in your child’s behavior, let them know you are noticing in a curious way. Say something like: “I notice since we found out about the school shooting you’ve been spending more time in your room than normal. I’m curious how you are feeling and I want you to know I’m here when your ready to talk”

If your child’s abnormal behavior continues, it may be time to seek out a professional who specializes in children and adolescent counseling. Sometimes children hold information from parents due to concern that they will be a burden to your busy life. Allowing a third party to step in and provide a safe place to share is a great solution.

It is an unfortunate reality that our children are growing up in the midst of witnessing violence on the news, in their schools, and communities. As parents we have an important role to provide a safe and secure space for our children during this tragedy. In the upcoming weeks and months to come attempt to keep routines as normal as possible and reinforce the ideas listed above.

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, grief, or how to talk to your children about tragedy contact me for a free consultation to see if I would be a good fit for your therapeutic needs.

Michelle Smith MS, RMHCI

(405) 323-1786

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