Community violence can impact children and their caregivers in many different ways. Despite caregiver efforts to shield their child from tragic events, children can still learn about acts of violence by witnessing the event directly, talking with peers, overhearing adult conversations, or even watching TV.
How do I talk to my child about community violence?
- It is better for children to hear about an event from a parent or caregiver in an honest, age-appropriate way.
- Keep it simple. As much as possible, use terms that your child is already familiar with to reduce potential confusion or misunderstanding.
- Avoid being vague, which may leave your child with even more questions.
- Remind children that they are safe and that there are people who can help them, like parents, teachers, or police officers. Children might want to list their own “safe people” in each environment so they know who would help them in a crisis.
- It is possible that your child may not want to talk about what has happened and that is okay.
- Let them know that you are always available to talk! Reassure them that there are no wrong or bad questions.
Violence in our community can evoke a wide range of emotions, such as sadness, anger, confusion, or fear. Young children may not be able to verbalize what they are feeling and instead may display changes in their behavior (such as an increase in temper tantrums, clinging to parents, toileting accidents, or difficulty sleeping). Children may display a sense of helplessness and may be uncertain if the danger has passed (see The National Child Traumatic Stress Network). Children may have many questions, and they rely on their caregivers to help support them as they process these emotions. Here are some ways to help support young children during times of crisis:
- 1. Provide a safe, open space where children can share their thoughts and feelings.
- It is important to validate your child’s feelings. Try not to minimize their fears. For example, a caregiver could say, “It is okay to feel worried, this makes me feel worried, too.”
- Encourage children to ask questions and be prepared to answer them in a simple, honest way. You may have to repeat information several times.
- Children may repetitively ask the same question over and over as a way of seeking reassurance or to process what has happened.
- 2. Model appropriate responses for children
- Even very young children can be attuned to their caregivers’ feelings. It is okay to label this, “Mommy is feeling sad today.”
- Let your child know what you do to feel better when you are scared or sad. If reading a book or listening to music helps a parent feel better, children are more likely to try using the same coping skills.
- 3. Limit media exposure
- Limit your child’s TV and internet time; be mindful of news coverage playing in a common area where your child could easily overhear.
- Avoid sharing graphic images or unnecessary details about the event with your child.
- Children often overhear adult conversations, either on the telephone or in-person. Be mindful of whether your child might overhear your adult discussions about the event.
- 4. Maintain routine
- Routines provide children with a sense of security and normalcy. As much as possible, keep their daily schedules the same. Try to avoid letting children stay home from school, as this might increase their anxiety when they inevitably have to separate from their parent in the future.
- It may be helpful to inform your child of caregiver whereabouts if they express worry.
- 5. Seek professional help, if necessary
- If your child’s fears are leading to increased difficulties such as sleep disturbances, somatic complaints (stomachaches, headaches), sudden difficulty separating from caregivers, or increased emotional problems and regression, seeking professional help for your child may be beneficial. Mental health services might be accessed through the family’s insurance; additional providers may be referenced on The National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s website.
Additional resources and advice can be found at The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Family Therapist at The Children's Center Utah