The world feels scary right now to me–and I am an adult, a parent and a therapist who talks about trauma everyday. If the world seems scary to me, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what this must be like for our children.
On July 4th, 2022, many of us in the Chicagoland area were faced with how to explain to our children why parades, fireworks and celebrations were being canceled. As I told the children in my life that the fireworks had been canceled, it got me thinking. When something like this happens, how much is enough information to give our children about the events without giving them too much?
I am sure that if I (a child therapist who teaches college-level courses on child development) was struggling with what to say, that there certainly had to be other parents who were not sure what to say as well.
Below are some tips for having these conversations with our children.
Talking to children about community violence:
Communicate developmentally appropriate information
For younger children (preschool and elementary-aged), stay away from lots of details about the event. Provide them with brief information and reinforce that they are safe. Discuss safety plans both at home and places such as schools, libraries, or daycares they may attend.
For early adolescents and teens, they may have more opinions and questions about the events. They may want to understand why this happened. This age group is often more likely to have access to media to be able to research the event online or through social media. They may need help trying to determine their own feelings about what happened and how they can continue to remain safe within their community.
As a therapist, one of the most important tools I give parents on this topic is that I encourage them to give their children permission to ask questions, talk about the event, and explore their emotions related to the event. Give your children space by letting them know you are open to talking about what happened. Remember, our children have access to a lot of information in their world and our role is to help them sort through all of it.
Share your own emotions
I know many of us may have grown up in families that encouraged parents to not show emotions such as sadness, anger, or fear to our children. We are “supposed” to not be phased by tragic events to be strong for our family. If this sounds like you, I would challenge you to shift your thinking.
Being vulnerable and sharing our emotions with our children is not going to make our children feel worse. It will actually do the opposite! By showing our children that we are scared or sad and communicating it to them, we are modeling that it is okay to experience negative emotions. And then show them through example that there are healthy ways to manage those emotions. When we do not allow our children to see us experiencing fear or sadness when horrible events occur, it can lead to our children thinking they are not allowed to experience those feelings of sadness, fear or anger themselves.
Have a safety plan
Just as you discuss what to do in a fire or medical emergency, have a family plan for what to do in other crisis situations. Though the plan itself is important, as a therapist, what I find the most beneficial part of creating a safety plan is that it empowers our children. It gives them some sense of control in out of control situations and it can ease some of their anxieties about what they should do if they were to ever find themselves in a scary situation. And believe me, our kids have already thought about it!
This safety plan may involve things such as:
- Having a planned meeting place much as you would do during a fire drill if you are at a community event and need to exit quickly
- Assisting your children in identifying safe people within the community or places they could run to
- Ensuring that your child knows or has access to their home address and contact information for family members
Continue the conversations
Continuing to provide space for your children to explore emotions even weeks or months after the event can reinforce that it is safe for them to talk to you! It is also encouraged to check in with them. Ask them things such as “hey, I know we haven’t talked about it for a little while, how are you doing with what happened…..”
Observe, Observe, Observe and seek help if needed
You are the expert on your child! If you notice changes in them–keep watching. Different age children respond to these events differently–younger kids may begin having nightmares or not want to sleep independently. Or they may express being fearful of being at crowded events.
Older kids and teens may withdraw, refuse to talk about it, and argue more frequently. Our children (and us as adults) can experience these responses even if they did not physically attend the event. If these begin impacting your child’s functioning, there is help—there are therapists who can assist your child in navigating all of their emotions about growing up in this sometimes scary world.
If you are struggling with talking to children about community violence and even processing it yourself recently, you are not alone. There is hope and there are people here to help. Call Family Counseling Service at 630-844-2662 or contact us online to schedule parent coaching or individual therapy and give yourself permission to take care of yourself.